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The Upside of Voter ID Initiatives

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cutting off the easy route to voter registration may prove to be a genuine boon for those on the fringes of society.

The New York Times recently reported in a front-page article the move by a number of states to require voters to produce identification to receive a ballot. The article was replete with lamentations about how this will disenfranchise poor people on the margins of society and make life even more difficult for them.

In other states, third-party groups who register new voters will no longer be allowed to do so. This brought much hand-wringing from the various experts the Times quotes as well as accusations of racist motives on the part of Republicans pushing the measures.

Someone who can’t legally work, drive, have a bank account, or obtain credit has severely misplaced priorities if he’s worried about voting.

But some perspective is in order: for people who do not have ready access to any identification, not being able to vote is the least of their problems. What’s more, requiring these folks get a valid government ID may bring them greater benefits than would accrue to them merely by being eligible to vote.

Not having valid identification forecloses options that many would deem necessary to engage in commerce of nearly every sort: it prevents someone from driving, at least legally, and precludes flying. Getting a bank account is difficult without some form of valid ID; even most check cashing and payday loan companies require a driver’s license before extending credit. And, perhaps most importantly, federal law requires an employer to complete form I-9 before putting a worker on payroll, to prove that he has the legal right to work in this country, and that necessitates some form of government ID.

Democrats should walk the walk and help these people get IDs; Republicans should do likewise and support such efforts.

In other words, someone who does not have a driver’s license or government ID card (which must be provided for free by the state, according to federal law) is deeply disadvantaged in the workaday world we live in. Someone who can’t legally work, drive, have a bank account, or obtain credit has severely misplaced priorities if he’s worried about voting.

If the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and various other good government groups really want to help the disenfranchised, they should focus their efforts on helping these people get some form of government ID first and foremost. Such an effort would be a lot less politically contentious as well—Republicans support helping reduce the barriers to work for people on the fringes of society—and it might even become easier to raise money for such efforts. Of course, helping people obtain driver’s licenses is more difficult than registering them to vote, and only a proportion of those who get a license will register to vote and show up on Election Day. But so what? Do these groups register people to vote to merely inflate the vote for their candidates or to genuinely help those who are disadvantaged? We’re about to find out.

Helping someone register to vote when he lacks an ID is a misplaced allocation of charitable effort, akin to making sure the homeless are moisturizing their skin. I doubt it’s what Republican legislatures had in mind when they passed voter registration laws, but cutting off the easy route to voter registration may prove to be a genuine boon for those on the fringes of society. Democrats should walk the walk and help these people get IDs; Republicans should do likewise and support such efforts.

Ike Brannon is the director of economic policy and director of congressional relations for the American Action Forum.

FURTHER READING: Brannon also wrote “Who Really Stands to Win in the Union Fights?

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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