The Real Cost of Voter ID
Voter fraud is a non-existent problem, yet the laws purporting to combat it are very expensive
The economy is beginning to turn around, but state budgets are still slim. The past two years have seen massive government employee layoffs and reductions in public services. At the same time, there is an epidemic of voter ID laws sweeping the nation, and the legislators that push them inevitably claim they are necessary to combat “voter fraud.” These laws cost millions of dollars for implementation, free IDs, and voter education. The price tag for photo voter ID is high, and the price to democracy of disenfranchisement is inestimable.
While photo voter ID is popular in state houses, the reality is that the only type of fraud ameliorated by photo voter ID is in-person fraud, and in-person voter fraud is extremely rare. The highest prosecutor in the country, Attorney General Eric Holder, says there are only a handful of cases of voter fraud in the U.S. In a December 13 speech on voting rights, Holder said, “those on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon.”
His conclusions reinforce a 2007 Project Vote report on voter fraud by scholar Lorraine Minnite, Ph.D. In The Politics of Voter Fraud, Dr. Minnite found that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005 in federal courts, an average of eight people a year. This paucity of evidence was despite the fact that, during this same approximate period, the Bush administration was spending considerable resources investigating voter fraud, and put unprecedented pressure on U.S. Attorneys to identify and prosecute cases. Even though the Justice Department was under high-level partisan pressure—which led to the U.S. Attorneygate scandal—the department turned up virtually no evidence of voter fraud.
Yet irresponsible legislators—almost exclusively Republicans—continue to push voter ID laws. The potential for these laws to disenfranchise millions of low-income and minority voters is well documented, and suggests a coordinated partisan agenda to reduce voter turnout and limit the composition of the electorate. What is too infrequently mentioned, however, is the cost of these unnecessary laws in cold hard cash.
The costs of voter ID
“Those who oppose photo voter ID often say that voter ID is a solution in search of a problem. This is true, but it would more accurate to say that photo voter ID is an expensive solution in search of a virtually non-existent problem,” says Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote.
Take Pennsylvania as an example. According to news reports, there have been no instances of voter fraud in the state, but estimates show that the cost of the state’s free ID and related voter-education program to be between $5 – $11 million.
Texas and New Mexico have similar stories. According to My San Antonio, the 20 allegations of election law violations in the 2008 and 2010 elections mostly involved mail-in ballot or campaign finance violations, electioneering too close to a polling place, or a voter blocked by an election worker. There were only five illegal voting complaints, and only one remains pending, according to agency records. In fact, according to Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), “There are more UFO and Bigfoot sightings than documented cases of voter impersonation.” Yet, the cost of implementing photo voter ID in Texas could be $2 – $10 million.
In New Mexico, an analysis shows that the voter photo ID would likely cost taxpayers more than $1.8 million per year, or $5.5 million over the next three years.
Wisconsin’s voter ID bill, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, would cost more than $5.7 million to implement. South Carolina’s photo voter ID bill proponents say the program will cost $1.3 million in the first year, with ongoing costs of $260,000 per year.
“In this down economy, cash-strapped states are being forced to spend limited funds to fight a problem that doesn’t exist,” says Slater. “And all they’re getting for their money are laws that make voting less convenient and also risk disenfranchising their neighbors.”
No fraud, but more photo voter ID
Why is it that over the last decade, we have seen no significant voter fraud, but there is such a renewed interest in photo voter ID?
“These laws are moving because partisan forces have spent a great deal of time and money convincing the American people that there is an epidemic of fraudulent voting,” says Slater. “This myth of voter fraud has allowed them to perpetuate their true agenda: to suppress the vote.”
When an election is close, having to acquire a photo voter ID makes voting more difficult for certain citizens. According to the Brennan Center, 11% of American citizens do not possess government issued photo ID. This means a sizable portion of the electorate could be shut out on Election Day.
And that’s the goal. “Voter ID laws are the latest attempt by conservative groups and corporate interests to shape a GOP-friendly electorate,” wrote Ari Berman at The Nation wrote last month. Berman points out that “Voter ID laws have been a top priority of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafted a model voter ID bill for state legislators in 2009. ALEC members sponsored voter ID legislation in five states that passed such laws in 2011.”
Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of ALEC, made that group’s agenda clear as long ago as 1980, when he spoke to a group of religious conservatives: “I don’t want everybody to vote,” Weyrich said. “Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Many Americans have been convinced that voter ID laws are a common-sense solution to a problem. But if the true purpose, danger, and expense of these laws were better understood, it would become clear that the cost—to our democracy, and to our wallets—is far too high.
Project Vote is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities. Project Vote takes a leadership role in nationwide voting rights and election administration issues, working through research, litigation, and advocacy to ensure that our constituencies can register, vote, and cast ballots that count.
For more information and interviews, please contact Sarah Massey at 202 210-6614.