In unveiling the Carter-Baker Election Reform Commission’s proposal on voter identification, former President Jimmy Carter condemned Georgia’s recently enacted voter ID law. He labeled the Georgia law — which makes government-issued photo ID an absolute requirement to vote — a discriminatory poll tax that should be “overthrown by the courts.” He tried to distinguish the Carter-Baker ID proposal by asserting that it had adequate safeguards to ensure that legitimate voters would not be excluded.
But the Carter-Baker proposal is more exclusionary than any state ID law — including Georgia’s.
Just under half the states require ID to vote, and most of these states accept a long list of non-photo ID such as a utility bill, bank statement, government check or paycheck. About a dozen of these ID states allow voters without ID to prove their identity by signing an affidavit or reciting information such as birth date and home address.
The Carter-Baker ID proposal would phase out the affidavit safety net and limit the forms of permissible identification to a “Real ID” card. If Georgia adopted the Carter-Baker ID proposal, voters would no longer be able to vote using a U.S. passport, military ID card, student ID card from a Georgia state university, government employee ID card or tribal ID card.
Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker defend their proposal by arguing that “differing requirements from state-to-state could be a source of discrimination.” But, like a nationwide poll tax of $20, the Carter-Baker ID proposal would uniformly exclude millions of voters across America.
Even if cash-strapped governments agreed to issue photo IDs to non-drivers free of charge, Carter-Baker ID proponents ignore the indirect costs.
Beginning in 2008, the Real ID Act will prohibit states from issuing a driver’s license or non-driver’s ID card unless an individual presents documentary proof of his or her full legal name, date of birth, Social Security number and citizenship. A certified copy of a birth certificate costs from $10 to $45 depending on the state, a passport costs $85 and certified naturalization papers cost $19.95. About 12 percent of voting-age Americans currently lack a driver’s license, and the hassle and cost of the supporting documents required under the Real ID law will only increase these numbers.
Carter also has criticized the limited access to ID under Georgia’s current law. Only one of the 10 Georgia counties with the highest percentage of blacks has an office that issues state IDs, and no such offices exist in Atlanta. These are the very offices that would issue the Real ID card, meaning that the Carter-Baker ID proposal would adopt this same discriminatory distribution network.
The Carter-Baker Report recommends that states should undertake “their best efforts” to make ID available. This soft, nebulous and unenforceable language fails to guarantee that states will issue IDs to all voting-age citizens.
The Carter-Baker Report’s one tangible suggestion for distributing IDs — proposing that states reach out with “mobile offices to individuals who do not have a driver’s license” — illustrates the inadequacy of the plan.
Georgia already has implemented a “mobile office” program: one bus available during the heart of the work day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A spokesperson for Georgia’s governor, discussing the state’s plan to use a hand-me-down bus from another agency that might need repairs, said, “We’ve got to start with the resources we’ve got and can’t spend money we don’t have.” Michigan has a more developed mobile ID program, but 10 percent of its residents remain without state-issued photo ID.
The Carter-Baker ID proposal also lacks an effective safety net for eligible voters who have had their cards stolen or lost, or who have simply forgotten to bring their IDs to the polls.
The Carter-Baker plan proposes that voters be able to verify their identity using a signature match, but it would eliminate that option after 2009 while recommending a permanent signature match for absentee voters. This double standard is particularly disturbing because whites are much more likely than blacks to vote absentee, and because the potential for fraud is greater with absentee ballots.
Carter-Baker ID proponents claim their proposal is reasonable because photo IDs often are required to board a plane or cash a check. But voting is different. Airlines have no incentives to exclude legitimate travelers. Some politicians, however, reap political benefits by reducing turnout among legitimate voters of particular demographic groups. One need only look at the most recent round of redistricting for evidence of this pattern.
Granted, most Americans would bring a Real ID card to the polls if required to do so, and some who forget to bring ID would track down the “appropriate election office” and present ID within the commission’s 48-hour deadline. But millions of Americans — many of whom are poor, elderly, disabled or people of color — would not overcome the commission’s hurdles.
Widespread access to a photo ID may allow the poor to cash checks and may promote national security, but these goals should be met by issuing free photo ID rather than conditioning the right to vote on a photo ID. The very purpose of voting is to ascertain the will of the people, and the Carter-Baker Commission’s exclusionary ID requirement would do much more to thwart that goal than to advance it.
Spencer Overton, a member of the Carter-Baker Commission, is a law professor at George Washington University and the author of the forthcoming book, Stealing Democracy. His full dissent on voter ID can be found at www.carterbakerdissent.com.