Forget life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is no more fundamental right in the United States than the right to vote. That is because our representative government — of the people, by the people and for the people — is the foundation of every other basic right. And that is why the voter identification proposal about to come before the Pennsylvania Senate is a bad idea in its current form.
The nationwide push for voter identification over the past decade has been led almost entirely by Republicans. Since 2003, 15 states have passed voter ID laws. Five more states have strengthened existing laws to require a photo ID. The goal, of course, is unarguable: that only duly registered U.S. citizens vote in each election.
But while the goal sounds lofty and nonpartisan, the reality is not. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, some 12 percent of Americans do not have a government-issued photo ID. However, that’s not the real story. The percentage is higher for seniors, people of color, people with disabilities and low-income voters because they are most likely to lack the underlying documentation — the ID you need to get an ID. The voters most likely to lack those IDs tend to vote Democratic.
Make no mistake, requiring some form of identification at the polls is constitutional. It is no poll tax. In the era after the Civil War, many Southern states enacted a poll tax — a fee to vote — in an effort to keep blacks from the ballot box. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1924 actually upheld poll taxes. However, a 1966 court that understood far more about racial discrimination ruled them unconstitutional.
Southern states also enacted literacy tests in an effort to keep blacks from voting. A typical question from the four-page test in Alabama: “If the president does not wish to sign a bill, how many days is he allowed in which to return it to Congress for reconsideration?” (The answer is 10.)
Literacy tests were banned by a 1915 Supreme Court decision for federal elections, and by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for state elections.
Requiring voters to produce an ID is different, at least according to a 2008 Supreme Court decision. In the 6-3 decision, no less than liberal Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that voter IDs were a valid way to protect “the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.”
Still, the devil is in the details.
Pennsylvania’s bill was written by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler. Metcalfe’s extreme views have included efforts to block Domestic Violence Awareness Month because he said it had “a homosexual agenda.” Metcalfe also attacked a veterans’ group that supported energy conservation by the military. “Any veteran lending their name to promote the leftist propaganda of global warming … is a traitor to the oath he or she took to defend the Constitution,” he wrote.
Metcalfe’s voter ID bill would take the harshest possible approach. It would require voters to produce a government-issued photo ID. Only seven states have this type of law, including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Seven more states require a photo ID but will accept a substitute. Depending on the state, this might include a voter with an ID vouching for a voter without one or asking voters to sign an affidavit swearing their identity.