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

Demonstrators hold signs at an NAACP-organized rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol to protest the state's new voter identification law on July 24 in Harrisburg, Pa.
Marc Levy
Demonstrators hold signs at an NAACP-organized rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol to protest the state's new voter identification law on July 24 in Harrisburg, Pa.

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."

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