Photo voter identification laws have been one of the more divisive and enduring political issues over the past 15 years. And with Republican-led state legislatures passing new voting restrictions — and congressional Democrats seeking to block them — the debate isn’t going away any time soon.


What You Need To Know

  • Photo voter identification laws have been one of the more divisive and enduring political issues over the past 15 years

  • According to Ballotpedia, 21 states have photo voter ID laws, and some state lawmakers are continuing to push for new or tougher photo ID laws, including in Missouri and Michigan

  • Those who support strict ID requirements say they only want to protect elections from fraud and ensure confidence in the democratic process

  • Critics say strict voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise groups of voters who are less likely to have the sort of identification that is required

It’s a rather complex topic, one in which there is various research available that supports the arguments of both proponents and opponents. Due to the nuances of individual state laws, courts have come out on both sides of the issue. And sometimes voters might form an opinion without seeing the full picture, such as the factors that might make it challenging for some Americans to obtain an approved photo ID.

According to Ballotpedia, 21 states have photo voter ID laws. Several have “strict” photo ID laws — ones that require voters who do not show an approved form of identification to cast a provisional ballot and take additional steps before their vote is counted.

Meanwhile, some state lawmakers are continuing to push for new or tougher photo ID laws, including in Missouri and Michigan.

Here is a look at the ongoing debate over voter photo ID laws:

Why do proponents of photo ID laws want them? 

Those who support strict ID requirements say they only want to protect elections from fraud and ensure confidence in the democratic process.

“We have ID laws in almost every other aspect of everyday life,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “It’s just part of the basic security that you need for an election system, which is to make sure voters verify that they really are the person who's registered. It’s one way of preventing the legitimate votes of eligible citizens from from being diluted by fraud.”

But critics argue that photo ID laws are an unnecessary solution to a nonexistent problem. And there are many studies that agree.

In 2014, Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, wrote in The Washington Post that a study he conducted found only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation from 2000 to 2014 out of more than 1 million ballots cast. Researchers at Arizona State University reached a similar conclusion. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that the incidences of voter impersonation are so rare that an American is more likely to be struck by lightning than try to pass themselves off as someone else at the polls. Additionally, former President Donald Trump and his allies failed to prove his claims of widespread voter fraud in the presidential election to judges, prosecutors and elections officials. 

And the list goes on.

“The very specific type of fraud that a voter ID law is mentioned to be getting at, which is someone showing up to vote and pretending to be someone that they're not, that is incredibly, vanishingly rare,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center. 

“The fact that we don't have a problem with with rampant voter fraud isn't an accident,” Morales-Doyle added. “It's not just coincidence. It's not that we haven't had laws on the books and people are just honest, and maybe that'll all change tomorrow when people figure out that they could be committing fraud. The fact is that voter fraud is already illegal, and if you engage in these kinds of things we're talking about, it is really hard to get away with.”

But von Spakovsky, an ex-Justice Department lawyer and former member of the Federal Election Commission, insists that fraud does occur.

“The left constantly says, ‘Well, it only prevents impersonation fraud.’ That's wrong,” he said. “It also can potentially prevent individuals or non-U.S. citizens from voting. It could also potentially prevent individuals who don't actually live in the state from voting.”

Besides, von Spakovsky says, if you’re not asking for identification, how can you be certain there is no impersonation? 

Why are opponents against voter ID laws?

Critics say strict voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise groups of voters who are less likely to have the sort of identification that is required.

A Brennan Center for Justice survey in 2006, for instance, found that 11% of U.S. citizens, including a quarter of African Americans of legal voting age, did not own a government-issued photo identification. 

That number might seem surprising to Americans who have carried a driver’s license around in their wallets their entire adult lives. But voting rights advocates say there are a number of valid reasons someone might lack an ID card, such as:

  • They don’t drive because they are elderly or live in an urban area where they rely on public transportation.

  • They don’t have the money or means of transportation to obtain an ID or the underlying paperwork required for one.

  • They find it daunting, if not impossible, to obtain those underlying documents because, for example, they might have been born outside the hospital system with the assistance of a midwife and never had a birth certificate.

A popular argument among the pro-ID crowd, including von Spakovsky, is that photo identification is needed for many other aspects of life, including cashing a check, boarding an airplane or purchasing alcohol, so it should also be required to ensure the integrity of elections.

But photo ID opponents are quick to say that those activities aren’t fundamental, constitutional rights and that, in many cases, people might have a form of ID that allows them to navigate everyday life but that still falls short of meeting strict voting requirements. 

“That is really demonstrative of how these laws are written to impact certain people, certain voices, certain voters,” said Molly McGrath, a voting rights campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union. 

In fact, McGrath said she believes the voter-fraud justification for ID laws is a pretext. She’s far from alone. It’s an argument that has been at the center of the vast majority of court challenges of ID laws — that the true objective of Republicans is to suppress the votes of certain groups of people, including minorities and the low-income, who are more likely to vote Democrat. 

“We all as Americans value our right to vote, we want our elections to be safe and accessible, and voter ID isn't the vehicle to get there,” McGrath said. “Instead, it's a vehicle to silence certain voices.”

McGrath and Morales-Doyle also argue that it’s clear some laws intentionally aimed to discriminate, such as a 2011 law passed in Texas allow gun licenses as a form of identification but not student IDs or a 2016 law passed in North Dakota requiring that IDs include street addresses, something many Native American reservations don’t have. (The state and tribes reached a settlement in 2020 to ensure Native American voters can cast ballots.)

Von Spakovsky said that the plaintiffs in some unsuccessful court challenges, including in Georgia in 2007 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Indiana’s law in 2008, failed to produce convincing evidence that anyone could not acquire the necessary identification, which sometimes is offered for free.

“That's a claim that's been made on numerous occasions,” von Spakovsky said. “And the groups that have said that have been unable to show any evidence that's actually true.”

So what does the research say? 

There are conflicting studies on whether strict voter ID laws significantly impact the outcome of an election. 

A study commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that voter ID laws had no clear effect on fraud, voter registration or voter turnout. 

“Overall, our findings suggest that efforts to improve elections may be better directed at other reforms,” says the study, published in May in The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

The researchers reached their conclusion by analyzing data from 2008-18, comparing changes in states that had enacted strict voter ID laws to those that had not. 

Vincent Pons, an associate professor at Harvard University and one of the study’s co-authors, said they also examined whether efforts to overcome ID laws through increased outreach might have offset the impact of the laws, but they found there was only a negligible difference.

“The increase in campaign contact could have compensated for small effects of the laws on participation, but not massive effects,” Pons said. 

As for the study’s conclusions about fraud, von Spakovsky says the Heritage Foundation’s database — one of two used for the analysis — is a representative sampling of election fraud cases, not an exhaustive and comprehensive list. 

He also argues that no study can measure the impact of ID laws as a deterrent to fraud.

On the flipside, however, a 2014 Government Accountability Office report concluded that strict photo ID laws reduced turnout by 2 to 3 percentage points. And a University of Wisconsin survey following the 2016 presidential election found that 11.2% of eligible nonvoting registrants said they were deterred by Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

What have the courts said?

The court rulings regarding photo ID laws have been mixed as well. 

Proponents of such laws scored a precedent-setting victory when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s legislation in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board in 2008, a decision that spurred several other states to enact similar laws.

But photo ID critics have scored their share of victories in the courts, too, mainly when they’ve proven that laws were discriminatory or too burdensome. A couple of notable, successful court challenges in recent years include a federal judge ruling in North Carolina in 2017 that its law targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and another judge ruling the same year that Texas’ ID law intentionally discriminated against Latino and Black voters.

But ultimately, the lawsuits, at best, only weaken, not crush, the laws, as legislators go back to the drawing board and craft a new bill that passes muster in the courts. 

Survey says … 

While photo voter ID laws might seem like a partisan issue, polls have found otherwise. 

In one of the latest surveys on the topic, Monmouth University found that 80% of Americans support requiring voters to show photo identification at polling sites, while just 18% oppose it. 

While support for such requirement was higher among Republicans — 91% — 62% of Democrats and 87% of independents also were in favor of them. Eighty-four percent of minorities also support photo ID laws, according to the poll.

Von Spakovsky said the polling shows that Democrats are “not talking to their constituents” about ID laws. He also theorized that Democrats like to use the issue to help in fundraising and that some might even like the idea of it being easier to cheat in elections.

Last month, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran for governor in Georgia in 2018 and a prominent voting rights activist, surprised some when she endorsed West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s proposed election bill compromise that would have required voters proving their identity. (Senate Republicans later blocked the legislation.)

Abrams told CNN that Democrats’ resistance to voter ID was “one of the fallacies of Republican talking points” and that “no one has ever objected to having to prove who you are to vote.” Abrams, however, said she rejected “restrictive voter identification designed to keep people out of the process.” 

Manchin’s proposal would have allowed voters to use a utility bill and other forms of alternative identification, hardly the sort of strict requirements Democrats have railed against.

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