Voter ID case about politics, not democracy

Last night I had the chance to talk to Richmond's 8 News about the legal challenge to Virginia's Voter ID law. As usual, Mark Tenia did his best to explain a complicated political problem in less than two minutes; here's the rest of the story.

  • Virginia passed the law in 2013; it requires voters to produce a valid photo identification at the polls. The law's requirements are not as strict as some other states; for example, you can use student IDs from Virginia public and private schools.
  • The lawsuit, filed in June of last year, is brought by the Democratic Party of Virginia. It's part of a coordinated effort by the national Party to challenge electoral laws that they believe have limited the party in recent state and national elections. (The Virginia redistricting lawsuit you may have heard about is also part of this effort.)
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures offers a nice history of voter ID laws. What they neglect to mention, though, is that the recent efforts towards voter ID are part of a nationally coordinated effort by a Republican-affiliated group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This group epitomizes a smart strategy by conservative activists; long ago they recognized that a lot of politics happen at the state level. So ALEC generates model bills for state legislators that favor conservative causes and Republican politicians, including a model voter ID bill.
  • Republicans typically defend voter ID by saying that the law prevents voter fraud. But the kind of fraud that voter ID would protect against -- voter impersonation -- is extremely rare. We just have no evidence that this happens on any kind of wide scale, if at all. (The other claim supporters often make - that it promotes public confidence in election results - seems only true for Republican voters.)
  • Democrats claim that the laws have already suppressed turnout. However, the evidence isn't so clear. For example, in 2014 a non-partisan voter protection group noted a 30% increase in voter complaints about polling problems nationwide. But how many problems were caused by voter ID (or just its first-time implementation), and how many by the other standard problems caused by America's patchwork electoral system? The Fair Elections Legal Network also noted mixed evidence in 2014, with turnout up and down depending on the state. The Democrats are going to have trouble establishing effects in this case; they even opened the trial with a 69-year-old black woman who was forced to file a provisional ballot in 2014. Guess what? Her vote was counted.
  • It's unlikely that the Virginia law will be overturned -- the judge hearing the case was the first to strike down Obamacare -- but at some point one of the Democratic suits should start to make its way up the appeals chain. Anything that happens will almost certainly be too late for the 2016 Presidential election, though.

The bottom line: each side is playing politics. Smart politics, to be sure; maybe the best way to win a game is to make sure the rules favor you from the beginning. Still, if you like popular participation in democratic politics, you should favor the Dems on this one, as they're on the side of more voters rather than less.

Want to know more? Watch John Oliver. (Every political story is more interesting with a British accent.)