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Why Voter ID Laws Are Actually Racist

Nov. 1, 2016
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Voter identification laws have become much more common in recent years. Before 2006, no state required voters to show a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Then, in 2011 alone, at least 34 states introduced legislation proposing voter ID requirements, with seven of these bills actually being signed into law. As of 2016, nine states have strict photo ID laws in effect. Why have voter identification laws taken off so much in the last few years? Let’s take a look. 

The introduction of these laws dramatically increased following the success of a wave of Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections. Strict voter ID laws were introduced by Republican legislators in all but one case, and states have been found to be increasingly likely to pass voting restrictions as the number of Republican state legislators increases. Those who support these laws claim they are trying to combat voter fraud, which they believe is a serious and pressing issue that poses an immediate threat to American democracy. This concern over voter fraud has even become a prominent topic in the 2016 presidential election, with Republican candidate Donald Trump and many of his supporters making frequent claims that the election is rigged

But here’s the thing: voter ID laws are the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The vast majority of studies on the topic have concluded that voter impersonation fraud — the type of voter fraud that photo identification laws are meant to prevent — is astonishingly rare. How rare? A Washington Post investigation of voter fraud in the U.S. since 2000 found only 31 credible cases. To put that number in context, the number of total ballots cast in that same period was over one billion

So if voter fraud isn’t really a problem, why spend the time, money, and effort necessary to enact and defend these laws? It’s simple: voter ID laws are a strategic move on the part of Republican legislators to discourage those who are likely to vote Democratic from voting at all. Though they may appear at first glance to be neutral, voter identification laws disproportionately impact racial minorities, particularly black and Hispanic people. 

States that have seen voter ID laws enacted are largely states with significant minority populations and fairly strong minority voter turnout. Seven out of the 11 states with the highest turnout of African-American voters in 2008, as well as nine of the 12 states with the strongest Hispanic population growth in the decade between 2000 and 2010, had new voter restrictions in place for the 2012 elections. Additionally, almost two-thirds of the states previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — areas with a past of racial discrimination so explicit that they were required to obtain prior approval for changes in voting rules that may have affected minorities — implemented new restrictive voter identification laws after 2010. 

These types of laws disenfranchise minority voters because black and brown people are substantially more likely to lack the documentation these laws require in order to cast a ballot. Nationwide, approximately 10 percent of all voting-age citizens do not have current, state-issued photo identification. In comparison, 25 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics do not have such ID. The offices that issue the necessary photo ID are also often located far from minority populations, particularly in areas with large concentrations of black and Hispanic voters. More than a million black eligible voters and half a million Hispanic eligible voters live over ten miles away from the nearest state ID-issuing office that is open at least two days a week. Furthermore, the offices closest to areas with high minority populations are often closed five or six days per week. Take Texas, for example: the majority of the 40 ID-issuing offices that are open three or fewer days a week are located near the border, where approximately 61 percent of the 134,000 voting age citizens are Hispanic. That’s almost double the proportion of Hispanic voters seen in the rest of Texas. Because voters who lack state-issued ID don’t have driver’s licenses by definition, travelling to these offices can often be time-consuming, expensive, or even impossible. 

This is all due to the fact that racial minorities are significantly more likely to support the Democratic Party than they are the Republican Party. Of the top 56 demographic groups most loyal to Democratic candidates, all are explicitly listed as a sub-group of African-Americans. African-Americans favor Democrats by a whopping nearly 70-point margin. Hispanic voters also lean this way, supporting Democrats 56 percent of the time, compared to a mere 26 percent of Hispanics who lean Republican. 

Far from upholding equality and democracy, voter identification laws and the Republican legislators who support them are actually contradicting these bedrock American values by purposely suppressing voter turnout. Voter ID laws are not equal. Voter ID laws are not necessary. Voter ID laws are a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a racist answer to an imaginary problem. 

Cover image via ShutterStock