Voter ID laws have been controversial in the U.S. for the past decade. This is especially true as we reach the final days of the 2022 midterm elections, which have been tense thanks to threats against election workers and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
A 2022 Gallup survey found that 79% of U.S. adults favored requiring all voters to provide photo identification at their voting place to vote. Though Republicans are far more supportive of universal photo ID requirements than Democrats, they’re supported by most members of both parties (Gallup).
Supporters of voter ID laws say they prevent voter fraud and strengthen elections (Ballotpedia). Opposers argue that strict photo ID laws impose voting barriers and lead to the disenfranchisement of marginalized voters.
Here’s an explainer of voter ID laws and why they are controversial.
• Check with VoteRiders if your state requires an ID to vote, which types are acceptable, and find assistance for getting the correct ID.
• Donate to Trans Lifeline, which offers name change microgrants to trans and nonbinary people needing court-ordered name changes to IDs, including passports, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and state and Tribal IDs.
• Donate to Rideshare2Vote to provide free roundtrip rides to polling locations.
What are voter ID laws?
Laws that require a person to provide identification to vote in local, state, and federal elections. They are meant to verify that the person casting a ballot is a registered voter, not an impersonator.
Every state except North Dakota requires citizens to register if they want to become voters (USA.gov). Though the registration deadline varies, some states, like Maine, allow you to register on Election Day. Identification documents for voter registration are required, but this might differ per state. Regardless of each state’s requirements, you must prove who you are in order to register or vote for the first time (VoteRiders).
Haven’t we always had to provide an ID to vote?
Actually, no. South Carolina was the first state to request voters provide some form of an identification document in 1950 (Britannica). Fourteen other states followed suit by 2000. In 2005, Georgia and Indiana became the first states to require ID. They were implemented in 2008 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Crawford v. Marion County decision which said the Indiana voter ID law was not unconstitutional.
Currently, 35 states have laws requiring or requesting voters to provide some form of ID at the polls. Twenty-one states require or request a photo ID — a driver’s license, state-issued identification card, military ID, tribal ID, or passport. Non-photo IDs, like a bank statement or utility bill with the person’s name and address, are acceptable in 14 states (NCSL).
In most non-voter ID states, a current and active voter registration is only needed. A poll worker will reference the poll book, a list of registered voters with their information like name, address, voting precinct, and status. They will confirm this information with the voter before issuing a ballot. Proof of residence at the polls might be required if you haven’t voted in four years or more in some non-voter ID states. In Minnesota, this can be a registered voter vouching for you by signing an oath confirming your address.
Verify with your state’s election office or VoteRiders to know your area’s ID requirements for in-person, mail-in, and absentee voting. Note: if you still need to send in your mail-in ballot, you must drop it off at the ballot intake station, Supervisor of Elections office, or other designated drop-off locations.
What’s the big deal? Everyone has a government-issued ID.
Not necessarily. The acceptable forms of photo or non-photo ID vary by state. Social security cards, passports, driver’s licenses, birth or citizenship certificates, and nondriver’s ID cards are typically accepted, depending on the states’ specific requirements. However, these laws become a voting barrier if you lose or cannot access these documents (social or birth certificate), cannot afford to acquire them or replace them, or don’t have the financial means or capacity to commute to the DMV/BMV to get them. This doesn’t consider the waiting periods, business hours of operation, or commute times required to obtain or replace these documents.
Approximately 7% percent of U.S. adults don’t have government-issued photo identification like a driver’s license or passport (Project Vote). ID ownership is the lowest amongst Black (13%) and Latine (10%) people, compared to white people (5%).
Lower-income households and young adults are also less likely to have a photo ID. About 500,000 eligible voters don’t have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office (Brennan Center). The majority of them live in rural areas with few public transportation options.
Around 203,700 trans voters do not have an ID that correctly reflects their name and/or gender, and 64,800 live in states with strict voter ID laws (Williams Institute). Also, 32% of trans people reported having negative public experiences like being denied service or harrassed when presenting identification that did not match their gender presentation (Williams Institute).
A 2006 survey found that as many as 32 million voting-age women didn’t have proof-of-citizenship documents that reflected their current name (Brennan Center).
Can you still vote if you don’t have a valid ID?
Even in states with strict voter ID laws, there are alternatives. In non-strict states, voters at the polls without identification might have to sign an affidavit of identity or cast a provisional ballot which election officials will then determine the legitimacy of after Election Day.
In strict states, voters must cast a provisional ballot and return to an election office post-election with an acceptable ID to have their vote counted.
Some states might offer exceptions to voter ID laws for people with religious objections to being photographed, the indigent or extremely poor, or victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking and have a “confidential listing” (NCSL).
So what’s the problem?
Voter ID laws have a disparate effect on marginalized communities, especially with voters of color, who are five times more likely to lack access to ID than white voters (Journal of Empirical Legal Studies).
And where the Voting Rights Act would have otherwise blocked and did reject such laws, a key provision in the act was struck down in 2013, making it possible for strict voter id laws to pass (PBS). And the states that passed such restrictive laws had a “documented history of discriminating against minority voters” (PBS).
The 2008 Supreme Court decision acknowledged that the voter ID law’s “somewhat heavier burden” was mainly on the elderly, those born out-of-state, or those with difficulty affording or obtaining their birth certificate (Supreme Court). Since licenses are free and voters can still cast provisional ballots, the Court found that this burden is not severe. In the dissent, however, Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay out how the travel costs and time, unexpected document fees, and limited nearby BMV impose financial hurdles for poor, disabled, and elderly people who might not own a car or can’t afford to miss work. Additionally, casting a provisional vote on election day requires a voter to later appear before the circuit court clerk or county election board to sign an affidavit, which is needed each time the person casts this type of ballot. This is not a mere inconvenience.
The argument opposing them isn’t against verifying voters’ identity but rather the restrictive photo ID laws that offer no exceptions. These laws bar eligible voters from the polls by creating a pre-voting endurance test to see who will do whatever it takes to achieve the right to vote. Except “voting is every citizen’s constitutional right” (Brennan Center). And “giving the government the power to block citizens from voting because they have more trouble jumping through a bureaucratic hoop is un-American.”
• Mandatory voter ID laws are less than 20 years old.
• Arguments against voter ID laws don’t oppose verifying voters’ identities.
• Such laws disproportionately affect marginalized groups who already face voting hurdles.