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According to figures from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, as many as 11 percent of adult U.S. citizens do not have any form of government-issued photo identification, accounting for more than 21 million people. Among that group, 18 percent of citizens 65 years of age or older don't have a government-issued photo ID (more than 6 million seniors) and, based on 2000 U.S. Census figures, more than 5.5 million African-American adults lack photo ID—a full 25 percent of eligible black voters. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens, regardless of ethnicity, age or gender, who make less than $35,000 "are more than twice as likely to lack current government-issued photo identification as those earning more than $35,000 a year," the Brennan Center reported, adding that it means at least 15 percent of voting-age Americans in the low-income bracket lack valid ID.
On top of that, the Brennan Center found in its survey that as many as 7 percent of voting-age citizens (more than 13 million adults) don't have ready access to documents proving their citizenship, making the process of getting valid ID all the more complicated.
"These ID laws—and this notion that they don't impose a cost on citizens—are farcical," said Spaulding. "We know that in some states it costs money to get documents and get an ID. There are a number of voters who are in a catch-22; they're 90 years old, they were born at home with a midwife and they don't have a birth certificate. There's the expense of getting those documents, there's the expense—especially in rural areas—of making the trip to get the ID. This notion that these IDs are 'free' does not pass the smell test."
But it's on that notion that voter ID laws have been ruled constitutional.
Indiana's restrictive voter ID law, which is seen as the test case for similar laws nationwide, was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 2008 because it was not found to be burdensome to voters.
"Clearly, that's not the case," Spaulding said.
It doesn't take much analysis to figure out the upshot of proliferating voter ID requirements: fewer seniors, students, people of color and low-wage earners at the polls. And it doesn't take much to see which party would most benefit from a whiter, more middle-age, affluent electorate.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that the legislators carrying these bills are not Democrats," said Lisa Graves, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy.
According to Graves, whose organization has made voting rights a priority issue, this newest push to limit the franchise traces its roots to the 1990s and the enactment of the National Voter Registration Act, or "Motor Voter Act," under President Bill Clinton. The measure did exactly what its name implies: made it easier for voters to register. African Americans, particularly, registered in high numbers, Graves says, prompting backlash among conservative states.
"In response to that law, Southern states started proposing changes to the laws to make it harder to register. Those bills went nowhere; they were perceived as racist and sort of languished for a number of years," she says.
Then came the election of President George W. Bush, "and the right wing started pushing this theme of voter fraud," Graves says. The Bush administration even tried to redirect the voting-rights section of the civil rights division to push this idea of voter fraud, she adds.
"U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn't do enough to assert nonexistent voter fraud," Graves says.
Despite pressure from the new Bush administration, strict voter ID laws remained few and far between, with only Indiana and Georgia enacting restrictive ID measures in 2005. But, Graves says, "these things were bubbling."