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A Clearer Picture on Voter ID

By Jimmy Carter and James A. Baker III

This Jimmy Carter and James Baker III op-ed was published in the Feb. 3, 2008, edition of The New York Times.

This is a major election year. Unfortunately, our two major political parties — Democratic and Republican — continue to disagree on some of the rules that apply to the administration of our elections. This divide is perhaps most contentious when the issue becomes one of whether voters should present photo identification to vote.

Twenty-seven states require or request some form of ID to vote. Supporters of this policy argue that if voters identify themselves before voting, election fraud will be reduced. Opponents of an ID requirement fear it will disenfranchise voters, especially the poor, members of minority groups and the elderly, who are less likely than other voters to have suitable identification. The debate is polarized because most of the proponents are Republicans and most of the opponents are Democrats.

In 2005, we led a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform and concluded that both parties' concerns were legitimate — a free and fair election requires both ballot security and full access to voting. We offered a proposal to bridge the partisan divide by suggesting a uniform voter photo ID, based on the federal Real ID Act of 2005, to be phased in over five years. To help with the transition, states would provide free voter photo ID cards for eligible citizens; mobile units would be sent out to provide the IDs and register voters. (Of the 21 members of the commission, only three dissented on the requirement for an ID.)

No state has yet accepted our proposal. What's more, when it comes to ID laws, confusion reigns. The laws on the books, mainly backed by Republicans, have not made it easy enough for voters to acquire an ID. At the same time, Democrats have tended to try to block voter ID legislation outright instead of seeking to revise that legislation to promote accessibility. When lower courts have considered challenges to state laws on the question of access, their decisions have not been consistent. And in too many instances, individual judges have appeared to vote along partisan lines.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has taken on a case involving a challenge to Indiana's voter ID law. The court, which heard arguments last month and is expected to render a judgment this term, has the power finally to bring clarity to this crucial issue. A study by American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management — led by Robert Pastor, who also organized the voting commission — illustrates the problem at hand. The center found that in three states with ID requirements — Indiana, Mississippi and Maryland — only about 1.2 percent of registered voters lacked a photo ID. While the sample was small, and the margin of error was therefore high, we were pleased to see that so few registered voters lacked photo IDs. That was pretty good news.

The bad news, however, was this: While the numbers of registered voters without valid photo IDs were few, the groups least likely to have them were women, African-Americans and Democrats. Surveys in other states, of course, may well present a different result.

We hope the court will approach the challenges posed by the Indiana law in a bipartisan or nonpartisan way. As we stated in our 2005 report, voter ID laws are not a problem in and of themselves. Rather, the current crop of laws are not being phased in gradually and in a fair manner that would increase — not reduce — voter participation. The recent decision by the Department of Homeland Security to delay putting in place the Real ID Act for at least five years suggests that states should move to photo ID requirements gradually and should do more to ensure that free photo IDs are easily available.

The Supreme Court faces a difficult and important decision. If the justices divide along partisan lines, as lower courts have, they would add to the political polarization in the country. We hope that they will find a nonpartisan path that combines both legitimate concerns — ballot security and full access to voting — and underscores the importance of applying these laws in a fair and gradual way. It is also important to remember that our commission's report addressed other pressing election concerns. There is much more that Congress and state legislatures need to do to improve the electoral process and restore confidence in our democracy. We have outlined 87 such steps in our commission report.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court can lead the way on the voter ID issue. It has the opportunity to inspire the states, our national leaders and the entire country to bridge the partisan divide on a matter that is important to our democracy. It can support voter ID laws that make it easy to vote but tough to cheat.

Jimmy Carter was the 39th president. James A. Baker III was the secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration.

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