Chou: Voter ID laws flawed but necessary

Curtis Chou, Columnist

Suffrage is a basic right ingrained in the concept of American democracy, and it has the power to shape the immediate future of the world. Indeed, the right to vote lays the foundation for the entire modern political system that upholds the values of the United States. It is popular representation in its purest form — the end goal of the “democratic” concept. Yet at the same time, it is vastly underused in terms of participation.

So does it make sense that in the last 15 years, there has been an increase in the number of voter identification laws, particularly those that require photo ID? It is a topic that has stoked greater passions in recent years as party lines harden and the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the federal government widens.

The public as a whole became more receptive to anti-voter fraud measures following the messy 2000 presidential election, when former President George W. Bush carried Florida by a mere few hundred votes. Two years later, Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law, which required all first-time voters in federal elections to present photo IDs or the last four digits of their social security cards at registration or polling. In subsequent years, Arizona and Indiana passed photo ID laws. Recently, other states such as Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina and Rhode Island passed similar measures, though some of these remain in contention with the Department of Justice. As students at Northwestern, not many of us come from an environment where producing such proofs are difficult, but these laws may have far-reaching effects on others that warrant attention.

Many Democrats have declared that voter photo ID laws violate the voting rights of poorer and younger voters, who tend to skew liberal and fewer of whom have the means to access approved IDs. They point to studies that show widespread consensus that there is minimal voting fraud and accuse proponents of strengthened voting laws of enacting legislation for political gains.

If one believes strongly in the rule of law, there is little wrong with the concept of voter photo ID laws. After all, it is the right of U.S. citizens to vote in elections if they choose to do so. However, why is there such a designation between citizens and non-citizens if it is not enforced? If only citizens are allowed to vote in elections, is it wrong to ask voters to prove that they are, in fact, citizens of the United States? A state-issued ID with a photo would be the simplest way to do so.

Even so, it is not incorrect to say that such a restriction would effectively disenfranchise those who must be inconvenienced (whether by distance, finance or some other reason) to attain approved identification, but that is where these laws must do better. They must make it easier for people of all demographics to obtain the right identification. In fact, Wisconsin has begun to issue approved IDs for this very purpose. Identification should be issued to citizens for a nominal fee (or none at all) at locations that are easily accessible everywhere and by everybody, perhaps even online. Colleges that hold voter registration drives, such as NU, could make it a point to inform younger voters of the requirements of registering and assist in any way they can to help students acquire necessary identification.

The point is that voter ID laws need not mean that Republicans are suppressing voters or that people are losing the right to vote. A 2012 Reuters study of Georgia and Indiana — two states with voter ID laws in place for several years — concluded that concerns by Democrats are probably overstated. Furthermore, a study by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice claimed that only 11 percent of eligible U.S. voters do not possess government-issued IDs. Considering the sub-60 percent voter turnout in the recent presidential elections, the issue becomes much more manageable. Polls already show that the vast majority of the public support voter ID laws.

The fact remains that the right to vote is reserved for citizens, and exercising that right as a citizen occasionally invites minor inconveniences such as driving to a polling station or whipping out an ID. Providing the proper IDs, if done with good and caring intentions, can be made easy and quick. Indeed, obtaining a driver’s license, traveling abroad, opening a bank account and buying alcohol, among dozens of other transactions, require photo IDs. It is not a crime to protect the most sacred of democratic institutions with the same tenacity.

Curtis Chou is a Communication senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].