Voter identification laws are controversial precisely because they touch on one of the most fundamental political rights—voting. These laws concern a simple policy that revolves around difficult factual questions, over which there is much disagreement. Is voter fraud a real problem? Do voter ID laws cause a downturn in voter turnout? If so, does it prevent any particular demographic from voting more than others? There have been many studies on these questions, often with contradictory conclusions. The Economist wrote of this debate, “Neither side has much evidence.” A more accurate assessment would be that neither side has much conclusive evidence.
In the United States, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) required that all voters show identification, either when they register or the first time they vote, but not necessarily after that. Many states have already passed laws that go further, though, requiring identification each time voters go to the polls. Several challenges to these voter identification laws have been mounted in the United States. Famously in 1966, the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax in Harper v. Bd. of Elections of Virginia, but upheld the lawfulness of voter identification requirements, as long as they are “even handed.” Most recently in 2008, in the Indiana case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Supreme Court held that voter identification requirements are permissible and do not violate the U.S. Constitution.
Most democracies around the world require a form of identification at the polling station. Most of them also, however, provide this identification as part of a system of “automatic and permanent” voter registration. In the United States, this is not the case. Although a majority of U.S. states require some form of voter identification at the polling station, what is required varies widely. Some require a signature, some will accept any form of identification, such as an employee or student card, while some demand a photo ID card issued by the state itself (such as a driving license). Debating the issue at a country or U.S.-state level will mean both sides have to be clear about the local rules or proposals. For a broader debate on the principle of the idea, it may be best for the proposition to simply advocate photo ID cards as a standard requirement, while specifying whether the ID must be issued by the state. Because this issue is most contentious in the United States, it is likely that many examples will come from there, but there is room for exploration into electoral systems where the issue is less publicized.
ACLU. “Voter ID.” Accessed July 5, 2011. Alvarez, R Michael, and Delia Bailey. “The Effect of Voter Identification Laws on Turnout.” Voting Technology Project. Working paper #57, Version 2, (October 2007). Brennan Center for Justice. “Policy Brief on the Truth About ‘Voter Fraud.’” September 2006. Accessed July 5, 2011. Brennan Center for Justice. “Crawford v. Marion County Election Board.” April 28, 2008. Accessed July 5, 2011. Carter, Jimmy. “Debate: Should the United States adopt voter ID cards?” New York Times: Upfront. Accessed July 6, 2011. Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008). Economic Times. “Nilekani to give numbers, ministries to issue cards.” July 16, 2009. Economist. “Prove who you are: A ruling that targets the disorganized, rather than Democrats.” May 1, 2008. Economist. “Going postal: Electoral fraud is not a problem confined to distant countries.” May 6. 2010. Erikson, Robert, and Lorraine Minnite. “Modeling Problems in the Voter Identification—Voter Turnout Debate.” Election Law Journal. Vol 8, No 2, (2009).Fair Vote. “Voter ID Requirements.” Accessed July 6, 2011. Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U. S. 663 (1966). Help America Vote Act of 2002. Lipton, Eric, and Ian Urbina. “In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud.” New York Times. April 12, 2007. Muhlhausen, David, and Keri Weber Sikich. “New Analysis Shows Voter Identification Laws Do Not Reduce Turnout.” Heritage Foundation. September 11, 2007. Rant World Blog. “A Brief History of U.S. Vote Fraud.” November 12, 2004. Accessed July 6, 2011. Vercellotti, Timothy, and David Anderson. “Protecting the franchise, or restricting it? The effects of voter identification requirements on turnout” 2006 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, PA, August 31 – September 3, 2006.