A liberal compromise on voter ID laws

Since President Obama was elected in 2008, GOP-controlled states have passed a slew of restrictions and requirements pertaining to who is allowed to vote, when they can vote and what they need to bring in order to vote. These laws have had material effects on a number of elections, and has in some states been ruled unconstitutional for unfairly targeting minority groups.

Of course, the laws are passed with the stated goal of ensuring the integrity of elections. And there’s reason to believe that, yes, for every billion (for perspective, that’s 1,000,000,000) voters, voter ID laws would prevent 31 fraudulent votes from being cast.

So conservatives insist they’ve hit on a problem that has the potential to undermine the very core of our democracy, and many voters are at least sympathetic to the idea that if you need an ID to buy a beer, you should need an ID in order to cast a ballot. This being the case, if voter ID laws are going to pass we might as well make them do what they’re supposed to do: ensure the integrity of elections by allowing every voter the ability to cast their own ballot.

Here’s what that bill would look like:

Free (actually free) IDs

You want ’em, you got ’em. Citizens who do not have a drivers license, passport or other government-issued photo ID should be able to show up to their local DMV and have a basic photo ID issued to them free of charge. The ID wouldn’t let you do anything other than prove your age and your identity — just enough to buy beer and vote (hopefully not at the same time, but hey, it’s a free country).

Of course, just because you can show up at the DMV and get an ID doesn’t mean you got that ID for free. As Harvard Law School’s Institute for Race and Justice has noted, the costs associated with going to get a free ID can run anywhere from $75 to $1,500, depending on how many hoops you have to go through in order to get your ID and how much it costs you to physically get from your house to wherever your ID is being issued. So in order to avoid running afoul of the 24th Amendment, the state would have to cover any associated costs for citizens who signed up for their free ID. That would range from bus fare to legal expenses that can be associated with tracking down documents like a naturalization certificate.

If that’s too expensive, the state can always go for voter ID-lite and mail every registered voter a voter card that doesn’t have a photo. Either way, if the state is going to require an ID, the state has to shoulder the cost. Them’s the rules.

Universal voter registration

If you really want your election to represent the will of the people, you need to take away arbitrary, superfluous, outdated barriers to entry in the voting market.

Voter registration requirements are one of the single biggest impediments to voting we currently have. In a study published last month, voter registration deadlines — to say nothing of voter registration requirements in and of themselves — kept up to 4 million people from registering and voting in the 2012 election.

So, for comparison’s sake: Voter fraud has affected 31 votes over the last fifteen years; voter registration deadlines alone affected up to 4 million votes in one year. One of these problems is bigger than the other

The United States remains one of the only industrialized democracies in the world that requires its citizens to register in order to vote — a requirement that dates back to attempts to disenfranchise immigrants and poor people, and was later used as part of Jim Crow. In other words, there is no good reason for voter registration to still be a thing.

And if the state is already issuing IDs for everyone who wants them — IDs that presumably have name, address and other identifying information — then adding that information to the voter rolls should be easy enough to implement.

Citizens would also be able to opt out of the voter registry. After all, this is America, and we’ll be damned if anyone is forced to keep a right they don’t want.

Vote via Shutterstock

Vote via Shutterstock

So, Republicans, there’s the trade. I will see your voter ID and raise you universal voter registration. Everyone gets their electoral integrity problem — real or imagined — solved. It’s a bipartisan compromise where everyone wins.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen. The subset of the American population that doesn’t currently have valid ID Venn Diagram’s to a significant degree with the subset of the American population that isn’t currently registered to vote. And both groups — along with the rest of the non-voting population — lean Democratic. So any law that increases electoral integrity by expanding the franchise is a non-starter.

Still, it’s important to make the offer, and by extension make the GOP’s motives as explicit as possible. Democrats should attach universal voter registration to every voter ID bill that makes its way through their respective state legislatures. Force Republicans to admit that these laws do nothing more than move the goalposts in a game of electoral football, and that they are completely unserious when it comes to efficient, common-sense electoral reform.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Demosthenes

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  • Demosthenes

    An excellent proposal, Mr. Green. As you note, the GOP would never agree to universal registration accompanying a free Voter ID law. The whole point of these exercises is the discourage “the wrong sort” from voting, isn’t it?

  • deano

    your odds do not take into account the MILLIONS of illegal aliens and how they are NOT suppose dto vote yet THOUSANDS do….wake up. It’s not about keeping CITIZENS from voting whether they are black or green.

  • Well there’s free and then there’s “free”. Bus fare and documentation origination fees (such as trying to deal with a situation where there is no birth certificate available at all) are only part of the picture.

    When are most government offices open? During normal business hours. When do most people work? During normal business hours.

    We also have no concept at all in America of guaranteed time off. Thus those who are the working poor who can’t get paid time off will also lose part or most of a day’s pay. Plus, there is no guarantee their employer will give them weekday time off in the first place.

    Universal voter registration is the way to go. And quite frankly, other countries with far less advanced technological infrastructures have even figured out ways to prevent people from voting twice (or more), through the use of UV inks. Hell, in India I even saw a diagram showing how and where a person would be stamped if they were missing some or all of a limb. Or even both arms. (Answer: Stamp goes on right shoulder.)

  • Improving voter turn out results in a government that works more for the people, instead of for special interests, but “improving government” is entirely subjective. Our system is broken in far worse ways than simply not enough people voting, but that is an important one if we want to continue to consider the Constitution as more than really fancy toilet paper. As nicho said below, corporate cash and gerrymandering need to be addressed as well.

  • nicho

    Jon — you’re ignoring the Catch-22 in the room. How do you prove your identity to get the “free” government ID? I was in the DMV one day. The woman at the next window had had her purse stolen — with her driver’s license and all her IDs in it. Very simple, said the DMV clerk, just provide three forms of photo ID and we’ll issue a new license. And, of course, the woman didn’t have them — because they had been stolen!

    I suppose someone could get a passport, but then they don’t need a different ID. But it’s hard to get a passport unless you have a bunch of cash laying around, because it’s not cheap. And if you don’t already have a government issued photo ID, there’s an additional $150 charge for investigating you.

    When you’re trying to live on an $800 a month Social Security check –that has to cover housing, food, healthcare, etc., that’s a lot of money.

  • nicho

    Exactly, we’re solving a “problem” that doesn’t exist. Our electoral system is corrupted by corporate cash, not by a couple of ineligible people voting here or there. Even if there are a few cases of ineligible voters, it is not enough to even make a dent. Most Congressional districts are so gerrymandered and so “safe,” that it would take thousands of ineligible voters to make a difference.

  • Gustav Wind

    Has anyone ever provided empirical evidence that having more people register to vote actually improves government?

  • Bill_Perdue

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