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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Political Tempest In A Teapot–Voter Photo ID

Much has been made recently about new state laws requiring valid photo IDs, and many liberal critics of these laws cite racism at worst, and GOP shenanigans to keep Democrats off the rolls.

While the percentage of Americans without a valid ID hovers around 11 percent (Brennan Law Center and others); and while some segments of the population (blacks, Hispanics, poor) have higher rates than the average, the ID issue is insignificant compared to other electoral challenges.

According to the US Census Bureau, approximately 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2008 election, little changed from the 2004 election.  The percentage of eligible, registered voters was close to 90 percent.   In other words, most people who could be registered, did; but a significant proportion of them did not not vote.

It is interesting to see the major reasons why people polled said they did not vote (in percentages): Too busy/conflicting schedule (17.5); Illness or disability (14.9); Not interested (13.4); Did not like candidates or issues (12.9).

It is more important that only 6 percent noted that they had registration problems. This means that a very small percentage of Americans did not vote because of registration problems. Surveys do not indicate what particular problems potential voters had, but none cite restrictive policies.

The Census Bureau data also show that poverty has little to do with voting patterns.  The lowest income groups ($20,000) voted above the national average.  Older citizens, also cited as disadvantaged when it comes to registration and voting, voted significantly at the highest rates in the nation, with those 75 and older the highest in the age category; and blacks, considered by critics to be among the most electorally disadvantaged voted at nearly the rate of whites (close to 70 percent). The worst rates, to be expected, are among voters 18-24.

If all potential voters without a valid photo ID were excluded from registering, that – according to the statistics cited above – would be 11 percent.  But it is not unreasonable to assume that a significant percentage of those without a photo ID never registered before the issue was raised (the 6 percent cited above).  So a more accurate calculation would be that photo ID laws would affect only 5 percent of the voting age population. In other words, if you have not figured out how to get a driver’s license, then you probably haven’t figured out how to register.  Therefore it is far from clear how many voters who want to register would be affected by ID laws.

In addition, how difficult can it be to get a photo ID? Since many people now drive well into their eighties, and drivers’ licenses are usually good for 10 years, the issue is not advanced age.  Many young people who move to urban areas and do not need a car, can still get a valid ID without a drivers’ license for identification purposes.  The numbers of deeply aged Americans with lapsed drivers’ licenses, or hillbillies still up in the mountains are very few. Many Americans may indeed be too poorly educated, too socially marginalized, and too immobile to get a photo ID; but this is a political problem or a socio-economic one.

In other words, most of the 11 percent of Americans without a valid photo ID could get one if they were really motivated; and, as the data suggest, far too few Americans care much at all about voting.

Since 90 percent of people are registered, but only 60 percent vote, the problem is getting out the vote, and more attention should be paid to the principle reasons for staying away from the polls.  If over 17 percent of people have difficulty getting to the polls, then private volunteer groups can run shuttle services.  Those with illness or disability can be contacted by these groups to encourage them to send in absentee ballots. Laws excluding felons, both incarcerated and released, could be changed to encourage voting.  Why should a dope deal exclude someone from voting?  Nearly 25 percent of the eligible voters do not vote because of lack of interest in the candidates or issues – a serious indictment of the political process. 

What is not shown in these statistics is indifference.  Many people may cite bad candidates as reasons for not voting, but they simply may be disengaged from civic life and responsibility, a structural problem requiring major reform in basic education.

Why, then, is there so much furor about voter ID and relatively little concern about getting registered voters – the vast majority of Americans – to the polls?  The answer, not surprisingly is politics.  It is very easy for ‘progressives’ to hammer what they see as a racist GOP; and for conservatives to slam liberals for untoward interference in state affairs.

The issue of voter ID has revolved around fraud – i.e. Republicans have complained that there is too much of it, and that the registration system must be reformed.  However, an NPR review of Minnesota elections concluded that reports of fraud were seriously exaggerated and that only 113 individuals were convicted of voter fraud in 2008 (http://blogs.mprnews.org/capitol-view/2011/10/poligraph_voter/).

Other proponents of photo ID’s cite the number of illegal immigrants who cast votes.  This is a good thing, not a bad thing, if looked at from the broader perspective of assimilation and integration into civil society.

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