What makes "Voter ID laws" so controversial in the US?

  • As a European, I am always baffled by the concept that requiring an ID to vote is so controversial in the US, for me is one of the most "natural" things.

    I hear that it is because obtaining an ID in the US in no simple matter, is it true?

    What are the historical and political reasons that make the topic so controversial?

    @Skooba - ID's are really easy to get if you are a legal citizen, have all the required documentation on hand, have a means of transportation to get to the place where ID applications are accepted, are able to appear during that place's business hours without losing your job, and have the financial means to pay any associated fees. FTFY

    @Skooba - 1) The voter ID laws are very specific about the type of ID they will accept. The state I live in did not routinely issue birth certificates to every baby until 20 years ago. You need to request it and pay a fee.. 2) The area I live in has no public transportation. 3) Employers are less restrictive about ID. They require Social Security cards, which are not acceptable for voter ID. 4) Not everyone has a job, so your nominal fee (coupled with the cost of public transportation if available) could be unaffordable.

    @Skooba most of the rural US, which is most of the US, has no public transportation.

    @Skooba I'm unaware of these laws being an issue in cities. Most of the coverage I've seen concerning disenfranchisement of poorer voters has covered the rural poor and their need to drive for hours to reach an office where they can get an ID.

    @skooba your are glossing over all of the complexities. Because something is easy for you does not mean it is for everyone else.

    It's controversial in the UK too. A previous plan to introduce ID cards was abandoned. In their absence, there is no form of photo ID (e.g. driving licence, passport) that everyone has.

    @SteveMelnikoff Indeed! And we are (for now at least) also Europeans (I'm referring to the OP saying "as a European". I would be interested (thinking aloud) to what extent England, Scotland, and Wales are the odd ones out in Europe when it comes to voter ID.

    I think that is a misconception. I would guess most states US states have similar documentation requirements to most EU countries (you need something that identifies you as you, but not necessarily the ID card; I would assume to prevent duplication of votes). I'm not sure but this issue seems to me to be much more about party warmongering (politics) and less about the philosophical concepts of voting and voters.

  • indigochild

    indigochild Correct answer

    5 years ago

    There are many reasons that a voter ID requirement is controversial. This is just a list of some arguments or concerns regarding voter ID laws, there is no attempt to determine the reasonableness of any of them.

    National Identification

    Elections and identification are two issues that are generally dealt with by states, not the national government. States organize elections. States issue the normal forms of identification in the United States (either a driver's license or another identification).

    There is a strain of American politics that has a strong fear of the national government. Consider that all Americans do have a national (non-photo) identification in the form of a social security card. This just contains the number we need to access our national social welfare and insurance programs, as well as being a secondary form of ID in many cases.

    Social security is at the center of many conspiracy theories (for example, this or this). The idea of a national identification card strikes many of the same fears: an oppressive national government, intrusion into private lives, etc. Many people have reasonable concerns, far from the world of conspiracy theories.


    Some people have privacy concerns related to an identification to vote. The idea of an anonymous vote is a part of the American system. A voter ID introduces the idea that voting behavior could be tied to this ID, which would be a significant intrusion into our supposedly-anonymous elections.

    The Electronics Frontier Foundation published an article summarizing many concerns about elections and privacy. If you wished to know more, I recommend their article. According to their article, some Americans are shocked to discover that you can access voter registration lists as well as information about who voted when.

    Voter Suppression

    Some people are worried that voter ID requirements are either intended to prevent people from voting, or will have the effect of preventing people from voting. In the last 100 years, racial and economic biases in elections have been an important issue. Although African Americans were legally able to vote as early as 1870, in practice many states or cities had rampant discrimination. There were monetary requirements (which poor Black farmers couldn't afford to pay), literacy tests (which largely uneducated Black citizens couldn't pass), as well as physical violence and manipulation to deter Black voters. From these experiences, the idea of deterring a group from voting may invoke powerful feelings in many Americans.

    One group that opposes voter ID requirements (including the national voter ID) is the American Civil Liberties Union. They are concerned, as are many, that these ID laws will lower voter turnout in general, but will disproportionately affect minorities (who are less likely to have identification).

    Voter Fraud

    Some people are concerned about the possibility of vote fraud, where somebody votes who shouldn't be able to. This is often tied to concerns about immigration, since it seems without an ID requirement immigrants (both legal and illegal) could vote in an American election, which they are not entitled to.

    This view is espoused in many news articles (example).

    Perhaps worth noting: Not *every* American has a Social Security card, or even a Social Security number - but the vast majority indeed do.

    @Iszi it's also worth noting that the SSN scheme was carefully designed *from the beginning* not to be an identification scheme. The cards specifically state, or at least they used to, that they're not for identification. Obviously, efforts to prevent the use of SSNs in this way weren't particularly successful, but as identity theft becomes more of a problem the use of the SSN for unrelated purposes has in fact declined somewhat.

    @Iszi - Do you have any idea how many Americans don't have SSNs? If it's a reasonable number, I would edit it in, but I can't find an estimate anywhere.

    I'm not sure exactly how many Americans don't have SSNs, but the issue seems to have bee notable enough to be included in the Wikipedia article. It's under the sub-heading "Non-universal status", and the Old Order Amish are noted as one group particularly fighting its usage.

    @phoog: Wikipedia also notes the "Not For Identification" statement you refer to, and has an image of a sample card with that statement. However, it appears that has been removed - I just checked three separate cards, covering at least two revisions of the form (Form SSA-3000), and none of them have such a statement.

    Normally a Social Security Card would not be used for voter ID. Sometimes a birth certificate plus a driver's license (to prove citizenship plus identity), or a naturalization certificate and a driver's license, or a passport would be used. Perhaps 5% of potential voters lack a driver's license, state ID or passport.

    @ohwilleke - I think you are right about the social security card, I'm just not sure how it's relevant here.

    This answer should be combined with Drunk Cynic's answer below to make a complete answer. These are indeed the arguments that are presented against voter ID, but it is incomplete (i.e. one-sided) to present them without the context in which they are made. If you asked a Democrat why the laws are controversial he would give your answer. If you asked a Republican why the laws are controversial he would say "because Democrats think it will hurt their election prospects if only legal voters vote". Both views should be represented.

    @Readin That is untrue. Many Republicans are also worried about voter suppression, privacy, and voter fraud - they are in no way Democrat owned issues. At least in my area, Republicans are largely against the national ID because of my first point.

    For the most part, the ID that is required is government issued "picture ID". So, a driver's license, a passport, a naturalization or citizenship certificate, military ID, other state-issued picture ID etc. Birth certificates and SS Cards don't carry pictures. They can be used as proof to get a picture ID, but they can't be used to vote. So, if you are a 90 year-old with no birth certificate who has had their license revoked, it can get difficult to procure an appropriate ID. (my comments are based on Texas, where I live).

    @Iszi it's also worth noting that hundreds of thousands of non-Americans *do* have Social Security cards, so it would be next to useless as voter ID.

    @Flydog57 non only do SS cards lack pictures, but they don't prove eligibility to vote, since noncitizens can get them too.

    @phoog: Other than a passport and a naturalization or citizenship certificate, none of the "acceptable" forms of photo id prove voter eligibility, they only prove identity (i.e., they provide authentication, not authorization). Photo Ids don't keep ineligible voters from voting (say someone who fraudulently registered to vote and has a driver's license). They prevent person A from voting using person's B identity. It's worth noting that just about every voting violation I've ever read was from a mail-in ballot, not in-person impersonation (which would be awfully risky).

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