Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Identifying a Harmful Policy

You’re foolish. You have no life experience. You only make decisions with your feelings. Really, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

William O’Brien, a New Hampshire politician, accused college students of these things a few months ago. He was supporting a voter suppression bill that would prevent college students living in his state from voting there.

His bill is unlikely to succeed in New Hampshire, and your vote should be safe in D.C., too. But some Americans won’t be as lucky in November 2012: A national movement to suppress the vote, of which O’Brien is a part, has had some recent successes.

I want to address the most common form that these bills have taken: personal identification requirements to vote. Like O’Brien’s favored legislation, they will shut some Americans out at the polls; unlike his initiative, these bills are constitutional and have been passed into law across the country.

Although they are legal, identification requirements are unjust, harmful and costly. They threaten to hurt our political system and isolate some of our most vulnerable neighbors. We simply can’t afford them.

ID requirements injure our democracy. Studies show that photo identification requirements make poorer Americans less likely to vote, while affecting the turnout rate of richer Americans little, if at all. Because poorer Americans often share party preferences, this depression of turnout could swing election outcomes away from what the people really want.

These requirements also isolate certain subpopulations of particularly vulnerable citizens from the political process. Elderly, middle–aged and young people are all inordinately affected. Another example comes from my own research, funded by Georgetown’s Raines Fellowship: Publicly available voter histories indicate that after a state implements a photo ID requirement, turnout among people who are homeless declines about five percentage points more than in states without new requirements. These effects threaten to muffle what little say in the political process such marginal populations — the sick, young or homeless — have.

ID requirements are costly to the state that implements them. Training election officials on appropriate procedure costs money, providing the free identification required by the courts costs even more and waiting in longer lines at the polls will cost our citizens and our businesses. It’s estimated that the photo identification requirement in Missouri will cost the state $16 million over the next three years. Is this really where we should be spending the tax-payers’ money?

Claims from pundits and politicians about how these laws discourage voter fraud and promote confidence in elections are well-intentioned, but misinformed. Check out Lorraine C. Minnite’s book, “The Myth of Voter Fraud.” The title explains a lot, but the gist of her argument is that pervasive, outcome-changing voter fraud is little more than a rumor. And two political scientists — one from Harvard and one from MIT — have shown that ID requirements have no appreciable effect on public opinion about elections.

There’s no evidence that these laws even prevent what little voter fraud does happen. If you’re going to commit a felony like voter fraud, very little is stopping you from fabricating identification.

The bottom line is that America can’t afford these laws. Their benefits aren’t guaranteed to be big: Voter fraud isn’t a huge problem, and ID laws might not stop it anyway. The costs, on the other hand, will surely be sizable. Millions of dollars will go toward enforcement and education. But perhaps more importantly, these laws’ de facto suppression of turnout in some populations more than others will make our government less representative. That’s a cost, too, and one we can’t afford.

Although states should protect elections from voter fraud, it doesn’t seem like this problem is sufficiently large to warrant the costs of identification requirements for the states, the taxpayers and voters. Voter ID laws might be legal, and they might help some politicians win their elections. But personal identification requirements hurt our democracy and our most vulnerable citizens. We can’t afford them.

Patrick Gavin is a junior in the College.

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