I am in the midst of a long business trip, which is why I will check into a California hotel tonight after a flight from Oregon. To claim my room key, I must present two items: a credit card and a photo ID.
I will need that photo ID just to get to California, because security screeners will not let me board an aircraft without one. And I’ll need it again after I arrive, in order to pick up my rental car.
Even if I happen to think the demand to see my driver’s license upon hotel check-in is a little excessive, I realize that these rules are for everyone’s protection. We all live with them. If we expect to show identification to board an aircraft or cash a check or enter an office building, why is there so much controversy over requirements that citizens show identification in order to vote?
Granted, voting is a constitutional right, while driving a car or flying in a commercial jet is not. But all sorts of procedural restrictions apply to the right to vote in order to ensure fair and honest elections. Most places require advance registration of voters, for example. Requiring identification from someone who shows up to cast a ballot makes at least as much sense. After all, you would not want to arrive at your polling place after a long day at work, only to find out that someone claiming to be you had already voted in your place.
Yet voter ID laws have become a partisan issue, with Republicans tending to strongly back them and Democrats opposed. And the Republicans’ position has managed to do significant long-term damage to their party’s prospects, even though their pro-ID position is basically sensible and ought to be non-controversial. It goes to show that what you say or do matters less than how you go about saying or doing it.
For the 2012 election, only four states have so-called “strict” voter photo ID requirements. Indiana, which in 2006 became the first state to pass such a law, has survived a legal challenge that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Requiring voters to show photo ID is not, in itself, unconstitutional. However, the way such a requirement is implemented might be.
Just last week, South Carolina’s photo ID law was upheld by a federal court with the proviso that the statute not be applied in the current election cycle, as there is not sufficient time to ensure the new rules would not disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. South Carolina’s law benefited from provisions expanding the types of valid photo ID (including passports, military IDs and photographic voter registration cards) and taking steps to make such ID easier to obtain. Voters without photo ID in South Carolina may sign an affidavit offering any truthful, “reasonable” explanation for why they lack such identification. These voters will then be able to cast a provisional ballot, which cannot be challenged unless there is reason to believe the voter has lied. Provisional ballots are also available to voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana who are indigent or have religious objections to being photographed.
In Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson blocked a new, stricter voter ID law from taking effect for this November’s election because he was unconvinced that voters who hadn’t yet obtained photo ID wouldn’t be disenfranchised. Officials can still request photo ID from voters in Pennsylvania but cannot prevent anyone without it from voting.
According to ProPublica, which has maintained a frequently updated “Q-and-A” style list of information about voter access laws since July, 30 states have now enacted voter ID laws in one form or another. In some cases, the Justice Department is directly involved in such legislation because of a requirement in the Voting Rights Act that dictates states with a history of discrimination receive clearance before making changes to their voting laws. Texas failed to receive such clearance earlier this year.
Other state laws faced challenges on the state level. Two judges blocked enforcement for Wisconsin’s photo ID law earlier this year. Governors - all Democrats - in Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and North Carolina vetoed strict photo ID bills in their states, though New Hampshire’s Legislature overrode their governor’s veto.
There has also been a flurry of voter access decisions relating to other rules for voters. Federal judges in Ohio and Florida pressured those states to restore early voting days, originally cut back under new laws. Another federal judge in Ohio held that the state must count the ballots of voters who vote in the right polling place but go to the wrong table for their precinct; The Los Angeles Times reported that 14,000 votes were lost four years ago due to this error.
I have no problem with a modest, non-burdensome photo ID requirement. This means that states should provide IDs at no cost to those who don't have them, at reasonably convenient locations, and with sufficient notice that nobody's voting rights are impaired. These are the same requirements most courts seem to have in mind in their rulings so far. Republicans have gone far beyond these parameters, however, in their push for stricter legislation. This is partly due to a simple lack of sensitivity to the burdens such requirements impose, but also partly done for short-term political gain in the hope of suppressing otherwise Democratic votes.
This approach, like the GOP's refusal to support sensible and humane immigration policies, will backfire in the long term. Comments such as those from Pennsylvania House Republican leader Mike Turzai, who famously claimed stricter voter ID law would “allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” make it easy to vilify Republican efforts, no matter what their original intent. While Turzai has claimed his remarks were taken out of context, it’s hard to misread the words of the Pennsylvania law’s sponsor, Daryl Metcalfe, who not long ago called those unable to obtain the required ID “lazy.”
Such short-sighted rhetoric damages the Republican brand and makes it more difficult to persuade voters of all races and nationalities to sign on to the party's less-tax, less-government, greater-opportunity agenda. It plays into the hands of critics who say Republicans are all about opportunities for people who already have plenty of them.
It's the kind of move, in other words, that a smart business executive would never make. You don't sacrifice your brand's reputation for transient short-term benefits, at least not if you want to succeed in the long run.
By mostly rejecting ballot access laws with unreasonable requirements, the courts are doing Republicans a small favor. Republicans could do themselves a bigger one by trying to make sure the least-privileged voters, who have the most to gain, align themselves with the GOP's goals of a more prosperous tomorrow, rather than sending a message that presumed Democrat-leaning voters are unwelcome either in the Republican Party or at the polls.