By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
When a law punishes more than 1,000 innocent people but doesn’t catch any guilty people, there’s something wrong with the law.
Such is the case with the voter ID requirement that was struck down unanimously by the Arkansas Supreme Court last week. Four justices said it illegally added to the state Constitution’s requirement that a voter be an American citizen, an Arkansas resident above age 18, and lawfully registered to cast a ballot. Three justices based their ruling on the fact that the law wasn’t passed with the necessary two-thirds majority. So now you don’t have to bring your driver’s license when you vote this year.
I supported this law when it was passed, though with reservations. Maintaining ballot integrity is a vital function of our democracy, and requiring voters to present a photo ID seems not overly burdensome.
On the other hand, not everybody has a photo ID – particularly people already marginalized because they are poor. Proponents never demonstrated that voter impersonation is a serious problem or, if it is, that this would solve it. Voter fraud already is illegal, and enforcement mechanisms already are in place: poll workers checking off names, and average citizens who surely would complain if informed they mysteriously had already voted. If someone wants to commit wholesale voter fraud, there are much more efficient ways of doing that than having people impersonate voters one by one.
Regardless of what you think about voter ID laws, they cannot be separated from electoral politics. Supposedly, they result in lower turnout among the poor and disadvantaged who are less likely to have a photo ID and more likely to vote for Democrats. Human nature being what it is, the laws unsurprisingly are often supported by Republicans and often opposed by Democrats.
Thankfully, it’s called “political science” for a reason: Because sometimes the effects of an action can be observed, like an experiment. Such was the case with the primary elections earlier this year. More than 1,000 ballots weren’t counted, many because absentee voters had failed to mail a copy of their photo ID. In fact, the law did not require those voters even to be notified their ballots were thrown out. Meanwhile, not a single person has been charged with any kind of actual voter fraud as a result of the law. Maybe the law deterred potential voter fraudsters, but that can’t be proven.
So somewhere around 1,000 law-abiding citizens did not have their votes counted because of a technicality, while no lawbreaking citizens were brought to justice. The law’s stated intentions – stopping voter fraud – might have been good, but its only demonstrable effects have been bad. The findings from this experiment are clear: This was not a good law.
The law’s flaws might have been overcome were it not for the constitutional problems. Maybe an exception could have been made for absentee voters. Maybe future absentee voters could have been given better information about the necessity of mailing a copy of their photo ID.
But the fact that the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the measure on constitutional grounds raises the bar high for any kind of fix. It probably would take a constitutional amendment now, which means it would have to get through the Legislature and then past the voters.
So for now, and probably for a while, no photo ID will be required. We voters simply must be American citizens, Arkansas residents above age 18, and lawfully registered.
The Constitution doesn’t require us to be informed about our choices, either, though we should choose to do that on our own. There’s probably not enough voter impersonation to matter, but voter apathy and indifference – you don’t have to have a license for those.