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Voting As A 'Responsibility': How Hard Should It Be?

Aug 25, 2012
Originally published on August 25, 2012 5:29 pm

Ana Gonzalez, 63, has gone her whole life without a driver's license or a state-issued ID. That wasn't really a problem, until now.

She was born in Puerto Rico but moved soon after with her adoptive parents for the continental U.S., where she grew up. Her husband drives, and her odd jobs over the years have required only a Social Security card, which she has. She's just never needed a birth certificate before.

Gonzalez lives in Pennsylvania and has been voting since she turned 18. As a registered voter, she didn't have to provide identification at the polls.

"They never asked me for anything," she says. "All I had to do [was] give them my name, and then they would look it up in the book and I would sign my name. And that's it."

This spring, however, Pennsylvania passed a voter ID law. It's one of more than 30 states that have placed new restrictions on how people vote. Some — like Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania — are for the first time requiring voters to present certain types of photo ID at the polls. Other places, such as Ohio and Florida, have made changes to early voting.

Many of the new rules are being challenged in court but could have a real impact on the November elections. They're popping up largely in states with the bulk of the electoral votes — the ones that can get a candidate elected.

The issue is split cleanly down partisan lines. Republicans say they are working to prevent voter fraud. Democrats say the rules target the elderly, the poor and minorities, who are less likely to have state issue IDs — and many of whom vote Democrat.

Critics of the laws also point to Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Turzai for proof of political motives. At the Republican State Committee in June, he said the new law would "allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

Turzai declined NPR's request for an interview.

But Cleta Mitchell, president of the Republican National Lawyers Association, says these laws are not about politics, but about fairness and voter responsibility. Her organization is pushing voter ID lawsuits and legislation nationwide.

"I am not trying to keep anyone out of the polling place. ... We want to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat," she tells NPR's Laura Sullivan. "I just don't know why that's controversial."

Much of the debate has stemmed from whether or not people are in fact cheating. One group, the journalism project News21, analyzed voter fraud cases over the past decade. They found just 10 cases nationwide of people showing up at the polls pretending to be someone else.

Conversely, Mitchell says it is an "infinitesimally small, isolated instance of someone who doesn't have a photo ID or can't get one."

She points to Tennessee, which passed a photo identification law last year and held primaries in March. In an article for U.S. News, she writes that of the 645,775 people who cast votes, 266 did not show IDs. Those people were allowed to vote provisionally, contingent upon them returning with their photo IDs, which 112 did. In the end, .023 percent of the primary voters did not return with ID.

"If people are choosing to exercise their right to vote, there's some responsibility that accompanies that," Mitchell says. "Do we not think that something as precious as the right to vote is worth going to a little bit of trouble to obtain?"

Not everyone buys that argument, though. Take Larry Norden, deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"[Voting is] the one time we're all equal. And when we cast our vote, nobody should be interfering with that," he says.

Norden says the instances of voter fraud are rare: "A person is as likely to be struck by lightning as they are to commit impersonation fraud." If it does happen, though, he says it's a relatively easy crime to track.

"Nobody wants ineligible people voting, and there are lots of steps that we can take to prevent ineligible people from voting, even in the exceptionally rare cases that it happens," he says. "But what we shouldn't be doing is using as an excuse this boogey man of voter fraud to keep legitimate, eligible people from voting."

A survey from the Brennan Center [PDF] found that up to 11 percent of citizens do not have government-issued photo identification. For African-Americans of voting age, that percentage jumps to 25.

"Voting is both a responsibility and a right ... but government has a responsibility also to make voting accessible to all of its citizens," Norden says.

The state of Pennsylvania is issuing free voter identification cards to people without them, like Gonzalez. The press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, Ron Ruman, says a community outreach campaign has been under way since the law passed in March to inform voters.

But Gonzalez says others in her community don't know they need one, and might not be able to provide the documents required to get one before the November election.

"The word hasn't really gotten out in the Spanish community ... as far as this. I believe there's a lot of Spanish people that are in the same situation as me," Gonzalez says.

The new requirement bothers her.

"I'm upset ... to see all sacrifices that so many people did, and it's almost like going back in time," she says. "And I truly believe this is all political."

Still, Gonzalez plans to vote in the November election.

"As long as I'm allowed to vote, I'll respect the law. But again, it's unfair because that type of pressure is not put on other people."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, in for Guy Raz.

Election Day is just three months away. Do you have what it takes to vote in your state? More than 35 states have enacted, or are considering, new restrictions on how people vote. Some states - like Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania - require voters to present specific photo IDs at the polls. Other places - like Ohio and Florida - have made changes to early voting. Many of the new rules are being challenged in court, but they could have a real impact in November. They're popping up largely in states with the bulk of the electoral votes - the ones that can get a candidate elected.

The issue is split cleanly down partisan lines. Republicans say they are working to prevent voter fraud. Democrats say the rules target the elderly, the poor and minorities; who are less likely to have state-issued IDs, and many of whom vote Democrat. That's our cover story today: how voter ID laws could affect this year's elections, and whether or not they're warranted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Meet Ana Gonzalez.

ANA GONZALEZ: I was born in Puerto Rico, and I live in Philadelphia, P-A.

SULLIVAN: Gonzalez is a U.S. citizen without a birth certificate. She was born - with the help of a midwife - on the island and shortly after, left for the continental U.S. with her adoptive parents. She doesn't have a license; her husband drives. And her odd jobs over the years have only required a Social Security card, which she has.

But now, without a birth certificate or a state-issued ID, she's got a bit of a problem under Pennsylvania's new voter ID law; one she's never had before, in 40 years of voting.

GONZALEZ: They never asked me for anything. All I had to do - give them my name. And then they would look it up in the book, and I would sign my name. And that's it.

SULLIVAN: So what's it going to take for Ana Gonzalez to vote in November? We asked Ron Ruman for some clarity. He's the press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which is responsible for implementing the new law. Here's the list of IDs you can use on November 6th in Pennsylvania.

RON RUMAN: Any photo ID with an expiration date, issued by the federal government or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; military IDs; photo IDs from accredited Pennsylvania colleges; U.S. passport; an employee ID issued by the federal government, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a Pennsylvania county or a municipality; and a care-facility ID.

SULLIVAN: Now, what if I don't have a photo ID?

RUMAN: If you don't have an acceptable ID for voting, you can get one - free of charge, for voting purposes - at any one of 71 PennDOT Driver License Centers.

SULLIVAN: And what do I need, to get that?

RUMAN: If you ever, in the past, had a Pennsylvania driver's license, all you need to do is go to the PennDOT Driver License Center. You give them your name, your birthdate, your Social Security number; and you'll go home with a free ID card that day.

SULLIVAN: And what if you've never had a driver's license? What if you're from out of state?

RUMAN: Folks in that position will be able to get what's called a Pennsylvania Department of State voter ID card. They are for voting purposes only. And what you'll need to present, to get one of those, is a Social Security number - you won't need the card - and two proofs of residence.

SULLIVAN: There are a lot of people who have really transient home situations. How are they supposed to prove that they have residency?

RUMAN: You can bring someone with you. They can attest to the fact that you live at that residence. Or, let's say that that's really tough for you to do - if you're in a boarding home, and you can't get someone to come with you. You can get an individual to sign an affirmation under oath, that they are vouching that you live at that address.

SULLIVAN: So given all that, Ana Gonzalez should be able to vote in November, if she gets a voter ID card. But it's going to take some effort on her part, and that is at the heart of this debate. How easy should it be, for someone to vote? And if you make it too hard, will you lose a certain segment of voters?

Critics of the new ID law say that is exactly the point of the laws. They argue, this is all politics. And Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Turzai gave critics a lot of ammunition in June, when he spoke to the Republican State Committee. Turzai co-sponsored the state's voter ID law.

STATE REP. MIKE TURZAI: Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania - done.

(APPLAUSE)

SULLIVAN: Turzai declined NPR's request for an interview. But Cleta Mitchell says this is not about Republicans versus Democrats. It's about fairness and voter responsibility. She's the president of the Republican National Lawyers Association, which is supporting voter ID legislation nationwide.

SULLIVAN: Is there any part of this, for you, that is about keeping Democrats out of the polling booth, and having Republicans be more represented?

CLETA MITCHELL: Oh, please. That is just so preposterous. It's actually insulting.

SULLIVAN: Have you heard the clip from Rep. Mike Turzai in Pennsylvania, who sponsored the voter ID legislation?

MITCHELL: I've read his comments. You know, what difference does that make? I also know that there are a lot of Democrats, and liberal groups, who've made similar statements; who are outraged at the idea that this might somehow keep them from being able to deliver their blocs of votes. I'm not trying to keep anybody out of the polling place. I want everyone who's eligible to vote in this country to participate in the process, and to do so in accordance with the law. And that's all we're trying to do. We want to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat. I just don't know why that's controversial.

SULLIVAN: Much of that controversy has stemmed from whether or not people are, in fact, cheating at the polls. One group, the journalism project News21, analyzed voter-fraud cases over the past decade. They found just 10 cases nationwide, of people showing up at the polls pretending to be somebody else. So I asked Cleta Mitchell if pushing efforts to stop seemingly isolated instances of voter fraud, could end up disenfranchising a much larger group.

MITCHELL: I think it's just the opposite. I think that it is an infinitesimally small, isolated instance of someone who doesn't have a photo ID - or can't get one. Tennessee just enacted - last year - a photo ID requirement. They had their first statewide election this past March. They made free photo IDs available. And in the final analysis - after all was said and done, and all the hoopla - it was .01 percent of the people who voted, who somehow were not able to vote - or who appeared to vote, who didn't have some form of photo identification sufficient to allow them to vote. Do we not think that something as precious as the right to vote, is worth going to a little bit of trouble to obtain?

SULLIVAN: That's Cleta Mitchell, from the Republican National Lawyers Association. Critics of these new laws say it's not about going through a little bit of trouble. It's about preventing people from voting at all. Larry Norden is the deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

LARRY NORDEN: Politics is one thing, and both sides try to win. But when it comes to denying people the right to vote, that should not be a political tactic. It's the one time we're all equal. And when we cast our vote, nobody should be interfering with that. So, you know, is this politically motivated? I can't read into people's hearts and know what their motives are. All I can say is when it comes to something as important as the right to vote, it shouldn't be an object of political calculations. And politicians shouldn't be allowed to manipulate voting rights for their own benefit.

SULLIVAN: How much voter fraud is there?

NORDEN: There have been many, many independent studies on thi. And the answer is, it is almost nonexistent. A person is as likely to be struck by lightning, as they are to commit impersonation fraud.

SULLIVAN: Is it possible, though, that there is voter fraud that is happening regularly out there; but that we simply don't know it because we don't know who's showing up at the polls, if they're not required to show a valid ID.

NORDEN: Actually, voter fraud - what we're talking about, impersonation fraud; is one of the easiest crimes there is to track, if it happens. The Department of Justice, under the Bush administration, spent a couple of years attempting to find examples of in-person voter fraud. And they weren't able to come up with anything.

If somebody goes into a polling place and pretends to be somebody that has died, they sign their name on the voter rolls. If there is an investigation done, to look at whether or not there were dead people voting, for instance, that would show up. Nobody wants ineligible people voting. And there are lots of steps that we can take, to prevent ineligible people from voting - even in the exceptionally rare cases that it happens. But what we shouldn't be doing is using - as an excuse - this bogeyman of voter fraud to keep legitimate, eligible people from voting. And that's, unfortunately, what has happened.

SULLIVAN: How many people out there do not have the kind of ID that they need to vote, with some of these new restrictions? How many people is this going to affect?

NORDEN: The Brennan Center estimates that about - and other independent studies have confirmed this - one in 10 Americans do not have the kind of ID that is required by the most restrictive laws that have passed.

SULLIVAN: What we heard, sort of, was this idea that, you know, voting is a responsibility. And it's something that people should...

NORDEN: Mm-hmm.

SULLIVAN: ...take seriously. And if they can't...

NORDEN: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...go through a couple steps to go down to the DMV and get their free voting ID, then maybe they really weren't going to vote in the first place.

NORDEN: Look, voting is both a responsibility and a right. And of course, all of us as citizens, have responsibilities connected. But government has a responsibility also, to make voting accessible to all of its citizens.

SULLIVAN: The Brennan Center's Larry Norden. So will Ana Gonzalez be able to vote this November? She says she's going to get one of her children to drive her to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and wait with her, so she can get a voter ID card. But after four decades of voting, it doesn't sit well with her.

GONZALEZ: I'm upset. I'm upset because, you know, to see all the sacrifices that so many people did - and it's almost like going back in time. As long as I'm allowed to vote, I'll respect the law. But it's unfair because that type of pressure is not put on other people.

SULLIVAN: The question many politicians are asking is, come November, how many other voters will be willing to take the same steps? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.