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The Daily Need

Everything you need to know about voter ID laws

by Suevon Lee, ProPublica, July 23, 2012, 4:51 p.m.

July 24: This post has been updated and corrected.

Voter ID laws have become a political flashpoint in what’s gearing up to be another close election year. Supporters say the laws — which 30 states have now enacted in some form — are needed to combat voter fraud, while critics see them as a tactic to disenfranchise voters.

We’ve taken a step back to look at the facts behind the laws and break down the issues at the heart of the debate.

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann holds a postcard to help identify voters in need of a free state government issued card that will be issued through his office at no charge. Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

So what are these laws?

They are measures intended to ensure that a registered voter is who he says he is and not an impersonator trying to cast a ballot in someone else’s name. The laws, most of which have been passed in the last several years, require that registered voters show ID before they’re allowed to vote. Exactly what they need to show varies. Some states require a government-issued photo, while in others a current utility bill or bank statement is sufficient.

As a registered voter, I thought I always had to supply some form of ID during an election.

Not quite. Per federal law, first-time voters who registered by mail must present a photo ID or copy of a current bill or bank statement. Some states generally advise voters bring some form of photo ID. But prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Indiana in 2006 became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law, a law that was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why are these voter ID laws so strongly opposed?

Voting law advocates contend these laws disproportionately affect elderly, minority and low-income groups that tend to vote Democratic. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome, with even free state ID requiring documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places. According to a study from NYU’s Brennan Center, 11 percent of voting-age citizens lack necessary photo ID while many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices. During closing arguments in a recent case over Texas’s voter ID law, a lawyer for the state brushed aside these obstacles as the “reality to life of choosing to live in that part of Texas.”

Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared the laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states during the Jim Crow era imposed voting fees, which discouraged the working class and poor, many of whom were minorities, from voting.

Given the sometimes costly steps required to obtain needed documents today, legal scholars argue that photo ID laws create a new “financial barrier to the ballot box.”

Just how well-founded are fears of voter fraud?

There have been only a small number of fraud cases resulting in a conviction. A New York Times analysis from 2007 identified 120 cases filed by the Justice Department over five years. These cases, many of which stemmed from mistakenly filled registration forms or misunderstanding over voter eligibility, resulted in 86 convictions.

There are “very few documented cases,” said UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist Rick Hasen. “When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can’t prevent,” he said.

One of the most vocal supporters of strict voter ID laws, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that his office has prosecuted about 50 cases of voter fraud in recent years. “I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter id is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system,” he told the paper. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.

How many voters might be turned away or dissuaded by the laws, and could they really affect the election?

It’s not clear.

According to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. This figure doesn’t represent all voters likely to vote, just those eligible to vote.

State figures also can be hard to nail down. In Pennsylvania, nearly 760,000 registered voters, or 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million voter base, don’t own state-issued ID cards, according to an analysis of state records by the Philadelphia Inquirer. State officials, on the other hand, place this number at between 80,000 and 90,000.

In Indiana and Georgia, states with the earliest versions of photo ID laws, about 1,300 provisional votes were discarded in the 2008 general election, later analysis has revealed.

As for the potential effect on the election, one analysis by Nate Silver at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog estimates they could decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 and 2.4 percent. It doesn’t sound like a very wide margin, but it all depends on the electoral landscape.

“We don’t know exactly how much these news laws will affect turnout or skew turnout in favor of Republicans,” said Hasen, author of the recently released The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. “But there’s no question that in a very close election, they could be enough to make a difference in the outcome.”

When did voter ID laws get passed 2014 and which states have the strictest ones?

The first such law was passed as early as 2003, but momentum has picked up in recent years. In 2011 alone, legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo ID 2014 14 of those states already had existing voter ID laws but lawmakers sought to toughen statutes, mainly to require proof of photo identification.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a helpful breakdown of states’ voter ID laws and how they vary.

Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania have the toughest versions. These states won’t allow voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing valid photo ID. Other states with photo ID laws offer some more flexibility by providing voters with several alternatives.

What happens if a voter can’t show valid photo ID in these states?

These voters are entitled to a provisional ballot. To ensure their votes count, however, they must produce the mandatory ID within a certain time frame and affirm in person or writing they are the same individual who filled out a temporary ballot on Election Day. The time limits vary: They range anywhere from up to three days after the election (Georgia) to noon the Monday after the election (Indiana).

Are there any exceptions to the photo ID requirement?

Yes. Indigency or religious objections to being photographed. But these exceptions don’t automatically grant a voter the ability to cast a regular ballot: In Pennsylvania and Indiana, voters will be given a provisional ballot and must sign an affidavit for their exemption within the given time frame. For a more specific breakdown of all exceptions, see this state-by-state summary.

Why is the Justice Department getting involved in some cases?

Because of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states with a history of discrimination receive preclearance before making changes to voting laws. Texas and South Carolina passed strict photo ID laws in 2011 but were refused preclearance by the DOJ, which argued that these laws could suppress turnout among minority voters.

Texas went to court recently seeking judicial preclearance from a federal district court; a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is expected to issue a decision by the end of the summer. South Carolina heads to oral arguments in the same court in September.

Are there any other legal challenges to such laws currently in the works?

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to prevent the Pennsylvania voter ID law, signed into law by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in March, from taking effect. The lawsuit claims that elderly, disabled, low-income people and the homeless, plus married women who have changed their names, transgender individuals, and students who have photo IDs that don’t list an expiration date, will find it difficult to obtain proper ID before the November election.

In the latest development, the DOJ has now launched an investigation into Pennsylvania’s photo ID law. As first reported by Talking Points Memo, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division sent the state’s chief election official a letter Monday afternoon requesting 16 separate items, including the state’s complete voter registration list, any documents supporting the governor’s prior assurance that “99 percent” of the state’s eligible voters already have acceptable photo ID, any papers to prove the state is prepared to provide registered voters with ID cards free of charge upon oath or affirmation, and any studies that inform state officials of the “demographic characteristics” of residents who lack valid voter ID.

The DOJ letter states it needs these documents within 30 days to evaluate the state’s compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.

Have any states attempted to enact strict voter ID laws but so far been unsuccessful?

Yes. In Wisconsin, two judges have blocked enforcement of the state’s photo ID law. An appeal in one case won’t be heard until after the November election. Meantime, Democratic governors in Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and North Carolina have vetoed strict photo ID bills passed by their Republican-led legislatures last year.

Are there other voter ID laws in effect that ask for but don’t necessarily require photo ID?

Yes. In these so-called “non-strict photo ID states” 2014 Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Idaho, South Dakota and Hawaii 2014 individuals are requested to show photo ID but can still vote if they don’t have one. Instead, they may be asked to sign affidavits affirming their identity or provide a signature that will be compared with those in registration records.

Why has there been such a recent surge in voter ID legislation around the country?

This report by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice cites primarily big Republican gains in the 2010 midterms which turned voter ID laws into a “major legislative priority.” Aside from Rhode Island, all voter ID legislation has been introduced by Republican-majority legislatures.

Republican figures have championed such laws. For instance, Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, recently praised the state’s legislative accomplishments at a Republican State Committee meeting last month. “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” he said.

A spokesman for Turzai, Steve Miskin, told ProPublica that Turzai was “mischaracterized” by the press. “For the first time in many years, you’re going to have a relatively level playing field in the presidential elections” as the result of these new laws,” Miskin said. “With all things equal, a Republican presidential nominee in Pennsylvania has a chance.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Texas went to federal court to challenge the DOJ’s denial of preclearance. In fact, Texas filed a lawsuit seeking preclearance from the federal district court two months before the DOJ announced its decision. Also, some states require a government-issued photo that does not have to come from the federal government as first detailed.

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  • Mike

    Has voter fraud EVER influenced the outcome of an election?

    Which has had a greater impact on election outcome – voter fraud or voter id laws?

    The 50 instances in Texas, the 86 convicted instances of the 120, did they significantly influence election outcome – proportionately to the extent to which voter id laws are being proposed or not?
    Is it a legitimate concern or a concern born of a disproportionate level of (manufactured) fear?

  • Aristotle

    I’m struck by how supporters of Voter ID legislation have not been forthcoming with statistics that prove widespread voter fraud; why they have not shown how Voter ID will “solve the problem”; why they have not provided cost-benefit analysis to show how the cost of implementing Voter ID is justified by the fraud that will be abated; why they have not shown how they intend to track Voter ID to make certain it’s working; and why they have not suggested doing a Voter ID trial run to ensure that it works – before investing time and money.
    Where are the protests against government intrusion; unnecessary laws, wasteful government spending and loss of freedom?   Where is the sign that proclaims “Keep your government hands off my ballot”?
    More importantly where is the voice of reason?

  • Reggie Giguere

    You know what I’d like to see? As much time, energy, conversation and, general, all-around activity by everyone @ all levels put into convincing more citizens to get out and vote! If THAT can be accomplished then maybe, just maybe mind you, we can deal with this allusive voter fraud situation.

  • Christopher Miller

    Thanks for the information!

  • Kristakimba

    This is ridiculous. The numbers if fraud is not there to justify these costly solutions. There should be more time and miney put into why Gore lost the presidency based on hundreds of electronic ballot machines that couldn’t count and to prosecute those companies and programmers for creating a presidential mess which in the end practically bankrupted the country! That should be dealt with FIRST before you deny a voter a ballot!!! There is no computing excuse for improper electronic counting. When was the last time your ATM did not distribute or deposit the correct amount. Puhleeze!!!!

  • Kristakimba

    Sorry for some misspelled below. Typing from a phone is a bitch and a half.

  • AZComicGeek

    It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes. That is where the real fraud is.

  • prellmecha

    Really, what’s all the fuss about? Don’t you need ID to be seen by your health provider? With elections noticed months in advance, how difficult is it to obtain the simplest of documents you need to vote? (Or should I say ‘voto’?)

  • Larry

    Yeah, more illegals with fake ID’s of dead people like one state had. I believe they eliminated around 20,000 dead people that voted. Getting out and voting isn’t the issue here. Voting fraud is.

  • Rafael28218

    I bet these pitiful people have no problem getting a drivers license or apply for all the govenment give away programs. What nonsense!!!!!!!!!!.

  • Larry

    You are singing the the choir here. Here’s some more researched issues I found….The Mexican government supplies brochures so the illegal migrants know where to go to get services etc. The current Mexican president also told Hispanics living in the U.S. that they should keep Mexico first in their hearts. Mexico doesn’t accept people for citizenship unless they are mainly professional types, 9100 people have been killed by illegals since 9/11. I can back all of this up with sources if you want them.  When are people going to wake up? 

  • Larry

    Takes two to tango doesn’t it?

  • Larry

    Check out Judicial Watch.

    They’ll give you an eye full about voter fraud!  Judicial Watch is expert at revealing these things and going after whoever they need to, in court, to get things back to legal operation.

    The lawyers at Judicial Watch are also great at pursuing FOIA issues that the president blatantly tries to brush aside.

  • Larry

    Check out Judicial Watch. They have a lot of specifics.  Judicial Watch’s lawyers challenged some states to remove thousands of dead people off the voting roles and the states responded.

    Some close elections can differ by only a few thousand votes so the answer is yes!

  • prellmecha

    Larry -  Thanks for bird-dogging these politically uncomfortable facts. Mexico doesn’t like ‘interference’ in its own domestic affairs, but they operate on double standard when it comes to the emigration of its citizens to the United States. I did a search on their website to find out how many consular offices they maintained here and found (are you sitting down?): 50!

    (By contrast, the Canadian government has 13.)

    Now what do you suppose a country as ‘poor’ as Mexico needs with all those consulates? (They’re not in all 50 states; only in those states most populated by Mexican citizens, which makes sense.)

    And I’d be happy to send anyone the contact info if you’re interested.

  • Gahenard

    I certainly believe that voter identification is right & necessary.  We are now living in times that require us to have some identification to enable us to live freely & without fear of terrorism, especially in public places.

  • Shirley Gallagher

    This is the Republicans’ millionairies donors way of buying another election like 2010.
    If the Americans’ were voting for Mitt Romney they wouldn’t  need a “VOTER ID”, this is just more of the Republican’s way of making sure President Obama doesn’t get a “SECOND TERM”, they want a person they can control and tell what to do. Mitt Romney.
    Wall Street, Bain Capital, Charles and David Koch, Grover Norquist, American Legislative Exchange Council, and etc.
    Mitt Romney said on day 1 he would repeal Regulations, the same Regulations that caused the Worst economic crisis since the Depression.
    Don’t take my word for it read about it at “Frontline Money, Power, and Wall Street. via  If you really want to know why our country is in this mass, and while you are on read the “THE DARK SIDE”, and see what  Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld did to our  Young Solders by invaded IRAQ.

  • Karen

     You really need to do even a Little research before you tell stories.Voting is a right of citizenship and we need to make sure that Legal citizens are the only ones voting and electing candidates that will be making laws that apply to US! Bush is no longer the president in case you havent heard! Obama has not kept even ONE promise he made to us,He believes that our constitution is out dated,Our laws do not apply to him and he forgets that Congress is even there.He has Never held a Real job and everything he has done has only made thing worse for us all.Give him another 4 yrs. and we will have a america that we do not even recognize!

  • Keith Brackett

    Mine is more of a question than a comment. This article states that “prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a
    government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Indiana in 2006
    became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law”.

    In Tennessee I’ve been required to show my state issued ID (driver’s license) in every single election I’ve voted in since I started in 1988. So, what’s up with that?

  • Mark A. DeMasi

    Be informed!

  • mbee1

    Since all these people supposidly unable to vote drink and smoke or at least a large part do, I have one question, how do they buy these products since a governmnet id is required to purchase them?  Apparently most stores violate the government laws on underage drinking and smoking as nobody seems to have proper identification.

  • mbee1

    Since all these people supposidly unable to vote drink and smoke or at least a large part do, I have one question, how do they buy these products since a governmnet id is required to purchase them?  Apparently most stores violate the government laws on underage drinking and smoking as nobody seems to have proper identification.

  • Sparta of Phoenix AZ

    Shirley, honestly get real….Nobody is buying this argument the Dems and DOJ are pushing…By the same logic what is being advocated is lawlessness and a flagrant disregard for the integrity of our system of governance…Anybody that is following politics knows this is an atttempt to use populations like illegal aliens to win elections….

  • Anonymous

    We think providing ID is the best way to know that only legal voters are allow to vote in this great nation’s elections!

  • Jshaw2100

    Need to Know doesn’t want to state it starkly and be accused of bias, but the facts show that voter fraud, relative to the numbers of votes cast in elections, is virtually nonexistent.  In the state of Pennsylvania, for example, proponents of these laws could not come up with a single instance of voter fraud. 

    Many people confuse voter registration fraud with voter fraud.  The former is much more common and occurs when folks are paid to register voters and put down bogus names like cartoon characters, sports stars or just names they make up.  These applications are all thrown out and thus don’t affect elections. 

    So, the problem cited by advocates of these laws doesn’t really exist.

    The undoubted effect of these restrictive laws is to dampen the vote of the poor, elderly and minority groups that vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and indeed, that is their true purpose.

    It is easy to get away with promoting these laws because they sound like good common sense to most people, who drive and aren’t poor and have always had photo ID.  Yet, study after study has shown that a large segment of society – about 11% – does not have these IDs, and that of that segment, it would be burdensome – whether because of the cost, travel or bureaucracy – for these folks to obtain them.

    Therefore, these voter ID laws are guaranteed to prevent VASTLY more legitimate Democratic voters than fraudsters from casting ballots.  They will help elect Republicans, as indeed they are designed to do.

    This puts voter ID laws in the same category as “felon purges” that have been done in those states – all in the South and designed to disenfranchise black people – that take away felons’ voting rights for life.  Prior to the 2000 election, the Jeb Bush administration hired a private company (DBT) to identify felons from these states who were on Florida’s voting rolls.  When the company provided its initial version of the list, state officials said that it was too short, and asked the company to do a fuzzy match requiring only a 90% correspondence between felons’ names and those on the voter rolls, as well as ignoring middle initials, allowing surnames to be switched with first names, disregarding Sr., Jr., adding aliases and nicknames, etc.  The company objected, saying that such a process would produce a huge number of false positives.  However, the state ordered DBT to do it anyway.  When the list was still not large enough, they directed the company to loosen their match to an 80% correspondence (e.g., somebody named “Smith” would now match a felon named “Smyth”).  Ultimately, 57,700 voters were identified as felons who should be removed from the rolls.  Of these, 88% were black, whereas blacks made up only 11% of the state’s voters.  An appeals process allowed some of these people to get their voting rights back before the election, and a few counties, after spot-checking the list, refused to use it.  However, the damage was done and a disproportionate number of black voters – who went for Gore at about a 90% rate – were prevented from voting.  Without this fraudulent purge, Bush would not have been able to “win” Florida, regardless of “hanging chads,” goofy ballot designs or the shenanigans of the Supreme Court.  Of course, the mainstream media in the U.S. were too corrupt or cowardly to report this incredible story, which was broken by the British media.

    Voter ID laws aren’t about protecting the sanctity of the voting process, they’re about electing Republicans.

  • Anonymous

    Legal voter…
    One must present photo ID at the doctors office, bank, market, pharmacy, etc………
    Voting is very important and many Unions, Hispanic groups pay crooks to vote more then then should or illegals..

  • Anonymous

    Obama’s friend’s at Acorn got busted big time for voter fraud in many different states..

  • Anonymous

    If one does not have the sense to get a photo ID then should not be voting anyway..
    Stinking Liberals are the crooks that are against voter ID..

  • James Brewer

     This is mainly directed to Sparta of Phoenix,

    The reality is that there is no “flagrant disregard” or “lawlessness” running rampant insofar as elections are concerned.  This is a “bogey man” created by the conservative right to justify the enactment of laws we seemed to be doing just fine without until 2003 or thereabout.  I do follow politics closely and so does the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

    For Shirley

    If you don’t already, check out they have the real story behind the bluster and spin, from BOTH sides.  You’re not wrong, they’ll just present the facts behind the claims and hype.

    Now that I think of it, Sparta should visit this site also.

  • give me liberty

    I am 64 . I never in my life have had to show a photo ID to pay my state , federal , FICA , sales , property , or all the other taxes I pay .  All of the taxes and fees that I pay are approved by elected officials . If anyone prevents me or anyone who is eligible to vote from exercising their 
     right to vote then that is taxation  without representation . I thought that was settled  over 235 years ago . Until the voter registration places are open Walmart hours – Sun. thru Sat. 7 Am to 10 pm , I get paid time off work , I get a free ride from my house or workplace , and I don’t have to pay $20 for a certified birth certificate  ,  then I should not have to pay for a government that  can’t elect  .

  • Anukulardecider


  • Prospector

    Here, in Alaska, I’ve had to show my drivers license or voter’s registration card every time I’ve voted since 1987.

  • Prospector

    Which “Regulations” caused the economic crisis?