© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Voter ID Laws: Necessity Or Burden?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, if you thought the Tea Party a passing political fad with a catchy name, our next guest would urge you to reconsider. He's written a new book about the Tea Party and what he believes is the source of its influence in today's politics. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about what has become one of the most intensely argued issues in the 2012 election, which is just around the corner now. Now, from the time we are small, those of us who are raised in this country have generally been taught that every vote counts and that all of our votes count, but now some people on both sides of the political divide are complaining - sometimes vociferously - that that isn't true. And both sides are accusing the other of trying to frustrate the will of the people by different means.

On the one side are activists who point to the growing number of states that have passed new laws requiring voters to show some form of government-issued identification in order to cast a ballot. At the moment, 11 states require some form of photo ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But that's way up from the two who had that requirement just a few years ago.

And according to the Brennan Center for Justice, since 2011, 34 states have introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo ID. But supporters of those laws say these are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote for everyone.

Now, over the last couple of weeks, we've had conversations about this based in Texas and Pennsylvania, but we wanted to take a broader look about what this means and what these conversations mean for the country. So we've called upon two women who have given that subject a lot of thought.

Kristal Brent Zook is an associate professor and director of the Masters journalism program at Hofstra University. She's also an award-winning author and writer, and she recently penned a piece for the August issue of Essence Magazine called "Destroying Your Vote." Also with us, Abigail Thernstrom. She is the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She's also the author of the book "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections." And they're both with us now.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: And thank you for having me.


MARTIN: Kristal Brent Zook, I want to start with you, because I think some people might be surprised to hear that some people don't have the IDs required to vote. Now, this report from the Brennan Center for Justice, which is based at New York University, says that 11 percent of citizens don't have a government-issued photo ID. That's some 21 million citizens. And a lot of people would hear that and say: Why not?

ZOOK: That's right. It seems counterintuitive, but if you're not an urban resident, you don't have the kind of lifestyle where you need one, you don't travel. Maybe you work as a migrant laborer. There are many reasons why, you know, a large percentage of the population, 11 percent, doesn't have an ID.

MARTIN: And why are the activists so concerned about this? I mean, I have to note that the title of your piece, "Destroying Your Vote," you know, leaves no doubt that there are people who feel that this is an intentional effort to destroy the vote. Why are they saying that?

ZOOK: Well, it certainly seems intentional. You know, all of the new laws that have been initiated have come from Republican-driven legislatures or governors, except Rhode Island. So there's definitely a partisan spin on this. And there's a concern, because it echoes the kinds of efforts at disenfranchisement that have taken place for so long in this country, from the poll tax to literacy tests, all the way up until 1965 when we had the first real reform, these measures were in place to keep people out of the voter box.

But it's not just a race-based issue. Half of married women in this country have names currently that don't match the names on their birth certificates. So now what they're having to do is get a corrected birth certificate, which costs money, and then they have to find the DMV, which is often hard to find in certain communities.

MARTIN: Abigail Thernstrom, you heard Professor Zook's argument that the argument by activists is that these new laws have a partisan edge. They've generally been advanced by Republicans, and the burden of not having an ID falls generally on certain populations. What do you say to that?

THERNSTROM: Well, first place, I hope Professor Zook is not implying that Republicans are racists, because that is the implication of saying they are intentionally trying to keep blacks and Latinos from the polls. You know, I do have to note that I couldn't get in the NPR building without a photo ID. I mean, you are a second-class citizen in America because you are excluded in so many ways if you do not have photo IDs.

MARTIN: Is there evidence, for example, that there has been some epidemic of voter fraud that would call for these requirements just in the last two years?

ZOOK: No. There's absolutely...

MARTIN: All right. Professor Zook.

ZOOK: There's absolutely no evidence for widespread voter fraud, specifically when it comes to voter impersonation, which is really interesting, because that's the only issue that the photo IDs address. The DOJ under both Presidents Bush and Obama found that it was not a significant issue, voter impersonation, voter fraud.

So it does seem to many civil rights advocates to be an issue that has political tinges to it and a reason for concern. You know, the - I think that I would be surprised, because I live in New York City. Many of us who live in places, we have checking accounts. There are many people who don't have checking accounts, who live, you know, sort of hand-to-mouth. They're paid in cash. There are people unlike us, who maybe we can't relate to, who don't have photo IDs.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Kristal Brent Zook, writer and academic, and Abigail Thernstrom of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. We're talking about the proliferation of voter ID laws that have sparked intense debate. Professor Thernstrom, do you want to go back to the title of your book, "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections"? Why is it elusive?

THERNSTROM: It's elusive because there's no consensus on a definition of a racially fair election, and most of my book is focused on the question of whether districting lines, for instance, have to be drawn to ensure black and Latino representation. Let me just agree for a second with Professor Zook. No, there is no epidemic of voter fraud, and in-person voter fraud is particularly difficult.

But nevertheless, I think it is legitimate for states to ask people to tell them who they are when they want to vote. And we ask people to do that in a whole variety of circumstances. If you're talking about low-income citizens or low-income non-citizens, if you want to get welfare, if you want to get Medicaid, part of the American mainstream requires this kind of ID, and you're a second-class citizen if you don't have one.

MARTIN: But Professor Thernstrom, I just have to press the question: Those are all voluntary activities, as opposed to voting, which is a right. So isn't that qualitatively different?

THERNSTROM: Yeah. There's a distinction. This point is often made. There's a distinction between rights and privileges, but I think it's a blurry distinction. I mean, is Medicaid a right if you are income-eligible? I would call it a right. I mean, we use the word rights in all sorts of contexts.

MARTIN: Professor Zook, what about the argument, though, that this concern about voter IDs is misplaced, that the real issue is just too many people don't participate, period?

ZOOK: That is a real issue, and that's why it's even more shocking that those who do participate and have participated for decades are now being told that they can't. You know, we've written about several of these cases where they can no longer vote. It's especially different if you're a senior and you were born during the segregated South at home at a time when, you know, the hospitals were white-only, and you don't have a birth certificate.

We wrote about Betty Jones, who's 77 years old. After the death of her husband, she moved from Cleveland to Wisconsin. And her daughter discovered that she had to figure out how to get a birth certificate for her mother who never had one, because she was born at home in the South. And she encountered so many obstacles working online.

She had to get a copy of her mother's marriage certificate, her father's death certificate, all of the birth certificates of all of their children. They had to pay for these things. These are the stories that aren't being told and, you know, people aren't aware of.

MARTIN: Professor Thernstrom, this conversation - not this particular one, but the conversations around this issue often move in a racial direction. But the other group that people say these requirements burden most heavily are the elderly.

THERNSTROM: Well, look. I live now in Virginia. If you don't have a government-issued ID, you vote provisionally, and then you come back within a specified period of time. Bring a utility bill, bring a bank statement. Just find some way of identifying yourself and - yes - I think states should make it very, very easy to get identifications, but I don't think it's illegitimate for states to ask for an identification, and we do put all sorts of restrictions on the franchise. You can't vote if you're nine years old. You can't vote if you have been incarcerated for a felony. These laws differ from state to state, but it's not true that everybody can vote without restrictions and states impose no restrictions.

MARTIN: Professor Zook, I did want to give you - ask you to give a final thought here and ask, do you see any sign of a meeting of the minds on this in any way?

ZOOK: Well, I think the evidence from this interview is that - no - it's not very hopeful because I have to take issue with the idea that it's easy. The whole point of our story is that it's surprisingly not easy. In the entire city of Atlanta, Georgia, there was no DMV. A lot of the offices have been closed due to budget cuts. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, under the law, had to actually sue to get access to a DMV for Atlanta residents.

Some rural communities have to drive, if they have a car, for miles and miles to get to a DMV. So there are many obstacles in place. It's not easy.

MARTIN: Professor Thernstrom, part of your work on the commission is to try to get consensus around contentious issues, and I'd like to ask your perspective on this.

THERNSTROM: Yeah, we're not very successful at doing so, but I didn't say it was easy. I said it should be easy every place. You know, I'd like to quote something from NAACP President Ben Jealous, who has blasted these voter ID laws. He's called for, quote, "a high tide of registration and mobilization and motivation and protection." And my reaction to that is, if indeed the voter ID laws lead to that kind of mobilization - well, then we're going to have democracy enhanced by these voter ID laws, and that would be a good thing for America.

MARTIN: Abigail Thernstrom is a vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She's author of the book "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections." She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Kristal Brent Zook is an associate professor and director of the Masters journalism program at Hofstra University. She's also an author and a writer and she recently penned the piece "Destroying Your Vote" for this month's issue of Essence magazine. She was with us from our bureau in New York.

Ladies, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

THERNSTROM: Thank you for having me.

ZOOK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.