Striking the Right Balance: Voter ID Laws in Michigan

By: Jason M. Kowalski

The right to a voice in the political process is the most fundamental aspect of American government. “No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry for American Revolution and the ideal that every person should have an equal vote and equal access to vote is one our country still aspires to reach. It is no mystery then, especially in light of our country’s terrible track record in disenfranchising minorities, that Voter ID laws have been the source of such controversy. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue. Advocates argue that such laws ensure that only those who are eligible to vote can do so and protect the integrity of the electoral process with, for most Americans, minimal intrusion. Opponents point out, that such requirements tend to have disparate impact on minority groups who have less access to the IDs themselves or the means to obtain them, including transportation, documentation and sometimes the funds necessary to purchase them.

There is a lot of disagreement amongst academics on whether Voter ID laws actually have a statistically significant effect of discouraging voter turnout. Regardless, Voter ID laws are problematic even when it appears the state is taking measures to repress minority voting. (For more detailed studies, see here) Additionally, while the effects of the laws are disputed, it appears that such laws do have at least some effect on minority access to the polls, as minorities are less likely than whites to have the identification necessary under the laws.For example, one study found that only 79 percent of African Americans in Texas have a driver’s license, state-issued ID card or a gun permit, compared with 89 percent of whites. In Wisconsin, another study found 94 percent of eligible white voters had identification, versus 85 percent of registered African American voters. The lack of minority access to IDs, combined with the fact that voter fraud rarely ever occurs (10 voter impersonation cases out of 2,068 alleged election fraud cases since 2000 – or one out of every 15 million prospective voters) means that Voter ID laws are strictly scrutinized by news outlets, civil rights groups and politicians.

It is against this backdrop that I chose to investigate the Voter ID law in my birth state, Michigan. In doing so, I discovered that Michigan’s law, passed in 2007, strikes a strong balance between the need to ensure that only eligible voters cast their single vote, while also ensuring that the laws do not have the effect of disenfranchising well-meaning citizens. Michigan’s Voter ID law requests that a person bring an acceptable photo ID to the polls and includes a wide variety of options: driver’s license, government issued IDs (both state and federal), military IDs, high school or college ID, passport and tribal ID. It’s very important to note that Michigan’s Voter ID law requests one of the aforementioned forms of identification, but does not require an ID. Instead, a person who does not have an acceptable ID, or does, but does not have it for whatever reason, that person may sign an affidavit at the polls certifying that she is who she says she is.

As a result, Michigan’s Voter ID law strikes the ideal balance between ensuring integrity in the electoral process and eliminating the threat of minority disenfranchisement. For the majority of Michiganders, this law will have little or no impact on their lives; they will show up to vote and show the photo ID that they already happen to possess, thereby ensuring that they are correctly counted and able to cast the appropriate number of ballots. For those in Michigan who do not have a photo ID or, as Justice Scalia put it in Crawford v. Marion County, “suffered life’s vagaries,” they are not out of luck. They can sign an affidavit at the polls asserting that they are who they claim to be. This allows complete access to the franchise for those who are poor, homeless or simply lost their wallet the day before, while also ensuring against fraud since a person who signs an affidavit does so under the threat of a perjury prosecution if it can be proved the person lied about her identity. Allowing an affidavit at the polls also prevents arduous extra steps for those who do not have photo IDs, as existed in the Indiana law in dispute in Crawford. ID-less Michiganders do not have to take the extra time and effort to go to a different location, for example, the county clerk’s office, as was required in Crawford, within a certain time frame and they can be certain that their ballots will be counted immediately.

Michigan’s law strikes the appropriate balance between the two positions in the Voter ID debate and should serve as an example on how Voter ID laws in other states can be reformed to ensure equal access to the polls, while reinforcing voter confidence that elections are free and fair.

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