Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

New Burdens of Proof

The sisters of the holy cross in notre Dame, Ind., don't have much use for driver's licenses. Or at least that's what a dozen of the nuns thought on May 6, when they went to vote in the presidential primary. They were each turned away as a result of a recently established ID-check requirement at Indiana polls.

In the intervening months, the elderly sisters have all had a chance to get government identification. But an explosion in voter-identification laws has raised the prospect that thousands will turn up to vote next month and find themselves turned away. Federal law now requires that all first-time voters who register by mail provide some sort of identification either when they register or when they vote. But states have applied that rule in markedly different ways. In Pennsylvania, first-time voters can use a firearm permit or a utility bill to identify themselves, and longtime voters don't have to show anything at all. In Georgia and Florida, gun permits don't help; all voters must show a state or federal photo ID at the polls. In Indiana, residents who attend state schools can use their student IDs in many cases, but students who attend private schools cannot. The laws have been established to prevent voter fraud, but some experts worry that voter suppression will result. "There is very little evidence of widespread voter fraud," says R. Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech/mit Voting Technology Project. "Imposing these additional barriers doesn't seem terribly justified."

How big a barrier? A 2001 study found that 6% to 10% of the voting-age population lacks driver's licenses or other state-issued IDs. The most reasonable worry is that many local ID requirements are not well known to voters, which could lead to significant numbers of people leaving the polls frustrated on Election Day without casting their ballot. That should not happen: in all states, voters without IDs are permitted to cast a provisional ballot. But in many states, for the ballot to count they must bring a valid ID to election officials within days after the election, proving that they are the person they claim to be.