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Photo-ID Laws: The Asterisk on Your Right to Vote

PUBLISHED: October 24, 2012

Voter ID required

Editor’s note: Throughout the fall, VQR will be posting educational information related to women’s rights, to extend and support the articles in our Fall 2012 issue on The Female Conscience.


Exercising your civil right to vote now often comes with terms and conditions. Over thirty states have enacted voter ID laws, and several states have ID legislation in the works. Voter-ID laws can affect your right to vote in surprisingly mundane ways. Here’s what you need to know—and do—to preserve your voting rights.

The Problem with Photo-ID Laws

Most states either have or are considering voter-ID laws. Some voter-ID states accept multiple forms of non-photo ID (such as a current utility bill or bank statement). Other states, however, are adopting strict photo ID laws, which require voters to present government-issued photo identification.

This requirement poses no problem to the majority of voters, who are likely to have a driver’s license or passport. However, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, “as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.”

People who are poor, elderly, disabled, African American, or Hispanic are more likely to lack a required form of photo ID. Women are especially at risk. For example, a woman who has recently changed her name after marriage or divorce may not have a driver’s license that reflects her current name.

Obtaining an ID seems simple enough. Most states offer them for free. However, the documents needed to obtain the ID (such as a birth certificate) are not free. Women who have changed their name in marriage are unlikely to have a birth certificate in their current name, and may have to pay for additional supporting documents.

Issuing offices for voting IDs are not always easily accessible or open on nights and weekends. Those who can’t or don’t drive (such as the elderly and disabled) or who would need time off work to get the ID or supporting documents may find securing an ID to be especially difficult.

The hidden costs of getting a free voter ID have been likened to poll taxes—seemingly nominal voting taxes that prevented African Americans from voting without directly depriving them of their civil rights. In several cases (such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin), courts have delayed or blocked photo-ID laws in agreement that they effectively disenfranchised voters.

Behind the Laws

Voter-ID laws have also been criticized as a partisan effort to influence election outcomes. Strict photo-ID laws have been proposed and supported primarily by Republicans in state legislatures, while the people most likely to be disenfranchised by these laws tend to vote Democrat.

And then there’s this:

Binary Data

That was Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader, ticking off an item on his to-do list: “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done.” Stephen Miskin, a spokesperson for Turzai, explained that “Rep. Turzai … was simply referencing, for the first time in a long while, the Republican Presidential candidate will be on a more even keel thanks to Voter ID.”

The problem with that explanation—and with the foundation of strict photo-ID laws in general—is that there is almost no evidence of voter-impersonation fraud anywhere in the country, let alone in Pennsylvania. Voter-impersonation fraud seems to be a non-issue, with Columbia Law professor Nathaniel Persily bluntly pointing out, “The reason voter impersonation fraud is so rare is that it is an incredibly stupid and inefficient way to rig an election.”

Considerably more evidence exists for other types of election fraud, especially voter registration fraud and absentee ballot fraud. A New York Times article observes that absentee ballots are especially vulnerable to vote-buying and granny-farming—caregivers exploiting the absentee ballots of the elderly (or the deceased).

Despite the concerns of voting-rights advocates, strict photo ID laws seem to have a lot of support in the voter base. Prevention of fraud never sounds like a bad idea, and we are living in an increasingly ID-conscious culture. After all (according to a political poster sent to me via community Facebook page President Mitt Romney 2012), you need a photo ID to do such everyday things as borrow a library book, board an airplane, or buy an annual membership to an amusement park.

Ultimately, photo ID laws aren’t going away. Indiana’s photo-ID law was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2008. That state and Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee have strict photo ID laws in place for the coming election. Laws that have been set aside for the November election in Pennsylvania and South Carolina will take effect in 2013. Other states are appealing the court decisions that blocked their photo-ID laws, or are phasing in photo-ID requirements.

What You Can Do

  1. Although your civil right to vote does not depend on ownership of a current driver’s license, your ability to cast your vote may. Take a moment to check the ID you’ll need before the upcoming election. Cost of Freedom Project lets you do a quick lookup of your state’s ID requirements, and it links to offices that issue ID.
  2. If you don’t have the ID you need to vote, get it. If you’ve changed your name or address since you last voted or registered to vote, make sure your voter registration is current and that your required ID is up-to-date. Need help or have a problem? The Election Protection Coalition offers assistance via website, email (, and phone (1-866-Our-Vote or 1-866-Ve-Y-Vota). You can also download their smartphone app.
  3. Once you’ve got yourself squared away, help your family, friends, and neighbors make sure they also have the ID they need to vote.
  4. Learn more about voter ID laws, and get involved. Good places to start are the ACLU’s voter-ID page and the Election Protection Coalition. Your state or local chapter of the League of Women Voters may also be able to help you take action. Find out where your state representatives stand on voter-ID laws, and contact them with your opinion. (Look them up here).

Further Reading

ProPublica regularly updates its excellent overview of voter-ID laws.

The arguments in support of photo-ID laws are summarized in this article by Heritage Foundation fellow and election-fraud author Hans von Spakovsky.

The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a summary page of state voter-ID laws.


About the authorNicole Klungle is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Mark Colombus - Herts wedding photographer's picture
Hi Nicole. I’m based in the UK and heard about this law, I think there are certainly pro’s and con’s in this. Personally, i think this law is ridiculous!! There are more people in the US who are on facebook that have a passport, and the oldies who have never had a passport, don’t drive so have no need for photo id. A stupid law, that has not been thought through. Good post Mark.

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