Manic Suppression

Voter ID is a terrible idea: bad for democracy and mean-spirited to boot. Let’s hope it doesn’t become law in Texas.

The most contentious, most partisan issue in Texas politics at the moment isn’t the economy, as sluggish as it seems to be. Nor is it whether the state should accept federal stimulus funds—although the debate produced the memorable comment, by Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, that expanding unemployment benefits for laid-off workers was like giving crack cocaine to an addict. (“It’s like a drug dealer,” Hammond said. “The dealer gives you your first hit for free to get you hooked, and then you are addicted.”) It’s not even the proposal, pushed by Governor Rick Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, that a woman seeking an abortion be forced to view an ultrasound of her fetus.

It’s voter ID. Nothing defines the differences between the two political parties as sharply as their respective views over the integrity of the electoral process. Republicans are absolutely convinced that Democrats try to steal elections through voter fraud; Democrats believe with equal certainty that Republicans try to manipulate elections by suppressing minority turnout. Yet voter ID is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem. There are two things wrong with laws that require voters to produce a picture ID in order to be able to cast a ballot: no credible evidence that voter fraud is widespread and plenty of credible evidence that such a law will reduce minority turnout by about 3 percent. That’s a lot of votes.

Granted, the argument in favor of voter ID is hard to refute: You have to prove your identity when you cash a check or get on an airplane or pick up a will-call ticket to a ball game; why shouldn’t you have to prove your identity when you participate in the most basic ritual of democracy? The erosion of confidence in the election system, which began with the Florida recount, in 2000, adds to the public support for voter ID laws. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken two weeks before the 2008 election found that 73 percent of Minnesota voters favored a photo ID requirement and only 20 percent opposed it; the margin was even wider in Iowa,


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