Misidentified Priorities

State Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican, camped out in the lobby of Texas' House of Representatives for two days in early November to make sure she was first in line to prefile a bill for the new session.

"I felt it was important to be first to file because I want my bills to have the lowest possible bill numbers," Riddle told Houston Community Newspapers. "That doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to pass, but it helps them get into and out of committee quickly."

"The low bill number also shows that I have fire in my belly and that I am serious about getting these bills passed," she added.

What could be so urgent? Had she come up with a way to keep more teachers in the classroom? Create jobs for unemployed Texans wracked by the recession?

No, her bill was for a voter-identification law that would require all voters to produce a photo ID -- or two nonphoto IDs -- in order to cast a ballot.

Riddle is not alone in prioritizing voter-ID laws. With Republicans taking control of state legislatures and governorships across the country this month, newly emboldened GOP lawmakers in places like North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Kansas are pushing laws that would require photo identification for all voters. Voter-ID bills have already been prefiled -- that is, submitted before sessions begin -- in at least six states. In North Carolina, legislators have even vowed to pass such a measure in the first hundred days of the session, and incoming Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said a voter-ID law will be the first bill introduced in the 2011 legislative session.

But despite Republican alarmism over rigged elections, voter-ID laws are a solution in search of a problem: They address an exceedingly rare type of vote fraud, cost the state money that could be used to address more pressing issues in a time of economic crisis, and serve primarily to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters -- just so politicians can influence who votes in the next election.

Given the sense of urgency behind these laws, one would expect that on Election Day, droves of people scheme to fix elections by impersonating other voters. That's not the case. The type of fraud that voter-identification laws would address -- that is, impersonation of another voter at the polling place -- is exceedingly rare. An extensive analysis by professor Lori Minnite at Barnard College showed that at the federal level, only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005, an average of eight people a year.

The available state-level evidence of voter fraud, which Minnite culled from interviews, newspapers, and court proceedings, was also negligible. It included 19 people who were ineligible to vote -- five because they were still under state supervision for felony convictions and 14 who were not U.S. citizens -- and five people who voted twice in the same election. Even an intensive five-year investigation by the Department of Justice under George W. Bush famously netted only 86 voter-fraud convictions. Most of these were for offenses like vote-buying schemes or ineligible voters registering to vote -- not for voter fraud that could have been prevented by a voter-ID law.

Voter-ID laws do, however, serve to disenfranchise many voters -- primarily people of color, young people, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. Among Americans over the age of 65, 18 percent do not have a photo ID. Fully a quarter of African Americans and 15 percent of low-income voters also don't carry ID. For members of these groups, who tend to have low voter-registration levels anyway, getting an ID becomes just another hurdle to voting -- in some cases the virtually insurmountable one of paying what amounts to a poll tax.

One of the great ironies of this latest assault on voting rights is that scarce financial resources are being squandered at a time when states face real and serious problems. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, 35 states and Puerto Rico project budget gaps for 2012, and a majority of those gaps are greater than or equal to 10 percent of the overall budget. But newly elected Republican legislators have the wind behind them; the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County upheld a voter-ID law in Indiana but required states to provide IDs to those who could not afford them. By the time a state has provided free identification for anyone who needs it, educated voters, and trained poll workers on the new requirement, a voter-ID program will have cost millions of dollars, much of that a recurring expense each year. For example, Missouri's Committee on Legislative Research found that implementing a photo-ID law would cost Missouri close to $6 million in the first year and around $4 million in its second and third years.

Instead of spending money on a nonexistent problem, states could save crucial programs in health care, job creation, and education. They could even use this money to increase voter participation by improving poll-worker recruitment and training, stepping up outreach efforts to Americans whose primary language is not English, and educating citizens about the registration and voting process.

The truth is that many legislators are trying to enact voter-ID laws, which disproportionately discourage voting among populations that tend to support Democrats, so that they can control who votes. Is it a coincidence that after African Americans, Hispanics, and young people voted in historic numbers in 2008 in places like North Carolina that these states are now trying to make it harder for these very groups to vote? Proponents of voter-ID laws don't care about solving crisis-level problems but rather, want to look out for their own interests. When legislative sessions begin this month, the efforts to enact ID laws will likely spread given that Republicans now control 20 state legislatures. Even as states cut major social programs and citizens struggle with the recession, these lawmakers will continue to shape the electorate to their political favor. At least that way, they can save one job in their state -- their own.

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