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June 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 16

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Which Comes First: Voting or Citizenship?


by Deborah D. Thornton



The Iowa League of Women Voters (ILWV) is so strongly opposed to Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s voter identification (ID) plan that they spent basically their entire state meeting on June 1 in Ames railing against it, and him.[1] Another presentation at the meeting was on the lack of civility in politics. Unfortunately, it was a case of do as I say and not as I do – civility in discussing this issue was not shown at an earlier meeting in Iowa City. Claims of Republican voter suppression and alleged racism were rampant.


This issue marks a fundamental divide in the Democrat (ILWV) and Republican approach to American rights and liberties. Both groups view voting as a core right. Those who support voter identification requirements believe that it logically makes sense that before exercising this core right, one must prove that you are eligible to do so, i.e. show identification proving you are an American citizen, voting in the precinct where you live, and are legally registered. Those opposed to voter ID argue that you should not have to prove anything about who you are and should not have to establish that you are entitled to that right.


Both groups are firmly committed to their position. The “No ID” position is also based on the history of mid-20th Century Jim Crow laws and practices from over 60 years ago. The “Yes ID” group is more firmly rooted in today’s culture. Sixty years ago there was intimidation and suppression of minority and low-income populations. People were also much less mobile and more likely to live in one place for many years, be known by their local poll workers, and might not have had ID. Absentee voting was rare and you actually had to be out of town on election day or unable to physically get to the polls. The problems of literacy tests and poll taxes were addressed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.[2]


Today, especially with early and satellite voting locations available well over a month before the election, absentee voting is common. Candidates want you to vote as soon as possible, in case you happen to change your mind. People are more mobile, and temporary poll workers – who may know few if any of their neighbors – are not qualified to determine eligibility. Nor, in many cases, are they confident of their legal right to question a voter. Anyone can vote at any satellite or early voting location, irrespective of where they live.


Thus, illegal voting is a valid concern. The Website “True the Vote” details that 46 states have prosecuted or convicted voter fraud cases, that there are 24 million invalid voter registrations on the current voter rolls, 1.8 million dead voters on the rolls, and over 2.75 million Americans registered to vote in multiple states. Voter fraud cases have been documented in many states, including Iowa. In a wide variety of counties in 19 states, there are more registered voters on the rolls than there are residents.[3] These cases may mainly be due to poor record keeping and data management. Does that make it any less important to ensure the voting process is fair for all? If only one person commits a crime, such as murder, does the lack of thousands of murders make that one murder any less heinous?


The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case challenging Arizona’s new, strict voter ID laws in March. The Justices seemed to indicate that they may rule in favor of the Arizona law.[4] This ruling is expected shortly. The arguments against the Arizona law focus on the issues from the 1960s, addressed by the Voting Rights Act. This Act seems to have worked, as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau, which recently released a report showing that “for the first time on record, black voters turned out to the presidential polls at a higher rate than whites.” The record shows that more than 66 percent of eligible blacks voted in the 2012 Presidential election. “Only 64.1% of whites turned out to vote.”[5] These results seem to show that voter ID does not suppress minority or low-income turnout. Whether the very presence of these laws motivates more minorities to turn out is irrelevant. Obviously they had or made the effort to get the necessary ID to do so. They proved they are eligible to exercise the right many Americans have died to defend. If we are required to prove our right to do much less important things as citizens – such as get a library card – why shouldn’t we be required to prove our most important right?


Eleven states currently have photo ID requirements, including Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Tennessee. African-American turnout surpassed white turnout in five states (Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, and Tennessee), showed no statistical difference in four (Kansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and South Dakota), and was lower in only two (Hawaii and Idaho).[6] All of these states have provisions and procedures for allowing a voter who does not have ID to vote and for low-income citizens to get IDs without cost. Legislation has been introduced in 30 states addressing voter fraud through a variety of methods.[7] Many of these already have some form of voter ID laws, which seem to be working properly.


In 2012 polls done by organizations as varied as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Pew Research Center showed that between 70 and 80 percent of Americans support photo identification requirements for voting.[8] Simply showing a photo identification – required for everything from library cards, to liquor purchases, to airplane flights – is not the same thing as either the literacy tests or poll taxes used to prevent voting. Those practices and issues have been addressed. Vote requirements ensure we have citizenship before voting and that only citizens vote, a basic protection for all.


[1] “State Convention 2013,” League of Women Voters of Iowa, <> accessed on May 6, 2013.
[2] “Voting Rights Act of 1965,” The Dirksen Congressional Center, <> accessed on May 10, 2013.
[3] “How Widespread is Voter Fraud? 2012 Facts and Figures,” True the Vote, <> accessed on May 9, 2013.
[4] “Court hears Arizona Voter Registration case,” U.S. News, March 18, 2013, <> accessed on May 11, 2013.
[5] Paul Taylor and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Six Take-Aways from the Census Bureau’s Voting Report,” May 8, 2013,
<> accessed on May 9, 2013.
[6] “A State-by-State Look at the Record Black Turnout in 2012,” The Atlantic, May 9, 2013, <> accessed May 10, 2013, and Kyle Wingfield, “More Evidence Voter ID Laws Don’t Suppress Minority Voting,” The Atlanta Constitution Journal, May 9, 2013, <> accessed on May 11, 2013.
[7] “Voter ID: 2013 Legislation,” National Conference of State Legislatures, <> accessed on May 9, 2013.
[8] “Voter ID: Five Considerations,” The Canvas - States and Election Reform, National Conference of State Legislatures, <> accessed May 10, 2013.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at

Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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