Alabama & Voter ID


In 2011 Alabama passed a voter ID law that would go into effect in 2014. This sort of thing was usually subject to approval from the Justice Department, but the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Some regarded this as reasonable, since voting seemed to be going along reasonably well. This is the same sort of reasoning that indicates that a patient with diabetes should stop taking her insulin on the grounds that her disease is now under control.

Critics of voter ID laws, who are most often Democrats, contend that they are aimed at disenfranchising minorities and the poor. These are the people who generally tend to vote for Democrats. Proponents of voter ID laws, who are most often Republicans, contend that voter ID laws are critical for preventing voter fraud. Since I have written extensively on this matter before, I will simply note that the best evidence shows that voter ID laws do have a negative impact on poor and minority voters. I will also note that voter fraud does occur, but at an incredibly low rate.

Now that Alabama’s voter ID law is in effect, the state seems to have upped its game by stating that driver’s license examiners would no longer be working at thirty one offices in the state. As might be guessed, Alabama officials claim that this is the result of budget cuts and is not intended to make things harder for minority and poor voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) in upcoming elections. It is also most likely a coincidence that this is occurring prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In what must surely be another coincidence eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters will have the license offices closed. These eight include the five counties that voted most strongly for Democrats in 2012. John Merrill, Alabama’s Secretary of State, counters that the state is ensuring that voters can get IDs. All the counties still have Board of Registrars offices and they issue voter ID cards. The state also has a mobile ID office that is supposed to visit all the counties.

While these IDs are available, only 29 IDs have been issued by the mobile offices since the start of 2015 and only 1,442 have been issued in total from all sources.  In response to concerns about these low numbers, Merrill insists that the fault lies with the voters, noting that “you can lead a horse to water. But you can’t make him drink.” He points to the existence of an advertising campaign to inform voters and the availability of the above mentioned IDs.

On the one hand, it is certainly tempting to agree with Merrill. As he noted, voters can get an ID other than a driver’s license and can do so in each county. There as, as he claimed, been a public awareness campaign.

If someone wants to vote in Alabama, it can be argued, then that person should take the effort to learn what she needs to do and make sure that she has the requisite ID. To use an analogy, for each class with a paper, I have a detailed paper guide that shows step-by-step how to do the paper and how it will be graded. I also have three videos on the paper and spend about 45 minutes in a class going over the paper. Despite all that, I always get at least 10% of the class who make it clear (usually by asking things like “so, what is this paper you mentioned?”) they have no idea about the paper. As such, Merrill’s replies have some merit.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the efforts to inform voters are not adequate. People who voted before the new voter ID law went into effect and did not happen to see the advertising campaign are likely to have no idea of the existence of this requirement. Those who are aware of the requirement for an ID might believe that a driver’s license is required and might have no idea that there is even such a thing as a special voter ID available. Even those who are aware of the law and the special IDs might face difficulties in getting an ID. Transportation could be an issue as could making the time to go get the ID.

Some people counter these claims by referencing their own experience. They already have a driver’s license, so they find it hard to believe that others would not have them. They have TV and the internet and free time to watch shows in which the advertising appears. They have their own car and time to do things, so they assume the same is true of other people. This is a natural psychological tendency, but the beliefs based on it can easily be in error. For example, when I was in grad school, I found it easy to get by without a car. It was fairly easy to walk two miles to the grocery store and walk back with a week’s worth of groceries. It was easy to just run or bike to campus. It was easy to run or bike to stores, the bank and other places. So, it would be natural for me to think this would be easy for everyone based on my own experience. However, I was well-aware that what is easy for me could be very hard for someone else in different circumstances.

Some refute these claims by arguing that even if it is not easy or convenient to learn about the special IDs and acquire them, people who want to vote should take the effort to check before every election to make sure of what rule changes might have occurred. These people should then be willing to take the steps needed to be able to vote and then take the steps needed to actually vote—no matter how challenging or inconvenient these things might be.

A reasonable reply to this is that since voting the basic foundation of democracy, the process should be made as easy and accessible as possible.  To do otherwise is to disenfranchise people unjustly. As such, people should not need to keep up with rule changes nor should they have to have an ID to vote.

The usual counter to this takes us back to the start: the concern about voter fraud. It is, I certainly agree, right to take steps to prevent voter fraud. However, as has been established beyond all rational doubt, the amount of voter fraud in the United States is miniscule. The fraud that does occur is also of the sort that voter ID would not prevent. I also accept the principle that it is better to allow a voter to vote fraudulently than to disenfranchise a legitimate voter—especially given that even if a method of fraud prevention did work, it would be preventing an incredibly low number of cases of fraud while most likely disenfranchising a vastly larger number of people.

Since I do like to think well of people, I am willing to accept that the officials in Alabama are acting from the most noble of intentions and, despite the evidence to the contrary, are not trying to take steps to increase the chances of Republican victories. That said, the methods they have chosen will have no real impact on fraud—both because it barely exists and because the voter fraud that occurs is generally not the sort that can be prevented by IDs. These methods will, however, have a negative impact on voters and that is certainly wrong—at least if democracy is accepted as a good.


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  1. In Chile, everyone over 18, with a national ID number (almost everyone has one since you need one for taxes, the public library, to work, to get a bank account or a credit card, to pay bills online, etc.), is automatically registered to vote. Voting is not obligatory.

    That seems like a good idea to me, although I can imagine that Republicans would consider a national ID number (much like your social security number) to be “communism”.

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