Voters going to the polls in Texas starting this week will have to show one of a few specific forms of photo ID under a controversial new law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court over the weekend. The Texas law — along with 15 other voter ID laws passed since 2010 — was billed as a way to prevent people from impersonating eligible voters at the polls. But voter ID laws don’t address what appears to be a more common source of voter fraud: mail-in absentee ballots. A FRONTLINE analysis of voting laws nationwide found that only six of the 31 states that require ID at the polls apply those standards to absentee voters, who are generally whiter and older than in-person voters. And two states with strict photo ID policies for in-person voters — Rhode Island and Georgia — have recently passed bills that allow anyone to mail in a ballot. Voter fraud generally rarely happens. When it does, election law experts say it happens more often through mail-in ballots than people impersonating eligible voters at the polls. An analysis by News21, a journalism project at Arizona State University, found 28 cases of voter fraud convictions since 2000. Of those, 14 percent involved absentee ballot fraud. Voter impersonation, the form of fraud that voter ID laws are designed to prevent, made up only 3.6 percent of those cases. (Other types included double voting, the most common form, at 25 percent, and felons voting when they were prohibited from doing so. But neither of those would be prevented by voter ID laws, either.)
Mark Obenshain, a Republican Virginia state senator who was the primary sponsor of his state’s voter ID law, said that lawmakers tried to balance improving security with maintaining access to the ballot for elderly and disabled people.
“There are good arguments that there are gaps with absentee ballots,” he said. “But the issue is, how can we close that gap without unduly burdening the right to vote?” Obenshain said that these voters might not have access to a scanner or Xerox machine to make a copy of their ID.
And, because absentee ballots must be sent to a voter’s registered address, they are still relatively secure, Obenshain said. “It doesn’t warrant making the voters jump through unnecessary hoops.”