The right of every American to vote is one of the most cherished liberties in the United States. An individual’s ability to make his or her voice heard at the ballot box should be protected by all levels of government. However too often state legislatures are passing laws which make it more difficult for all people to vote, especially seniors. In particular, photo identification laws have made going to be polls too onerous for the elderly, and have chipped away at their ability to make their vote count on Election Day. In 2017, 17 states require citizens to show photo identification to participate in an election, which has put an unnecessary hardship on seniors, who are one of the least likely population groups to have a driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID.
A study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2006 (the latest year available) demonstrated that 18 percent, or eight million older voters, did not have a government ID. This can often be explained because many seniors give up their driver’s licenses, and consequently have an expired government ID.
Many people, upon hearing these numbers, might just say, “Why don’t seniors just get a government ID. How difficult can that be?” The problem for seniors is that obtaining government-issued identification can be cost-prohibitive and/or require extensive travel.
For example, a Harvard Law School study published by Richard Sobel, “The High Cost of ‘Free’ Photo Voter Identification Cards,” concluded that between public transportation expenses, fees associated with documents and waiting times, it could cost between $75 and $175 to obtain an ID. For low-income seniors who sometimes have to choose between health care and eating, a government ID is a luxury they just can’t afford. Furthermore, there are states that necessitate a birth certificate upon registering to vote. Many seniors were born before issuing birth certificates to a family was standard procedure. Even when a birth certificate can be located in a county clerk’s office, some elderly people would be required to travel to the cities in which they were born to pick up documentation. In addition, the validity of birth certificates at times can be called into question because it might contain minor errors regarding their name, especially for women who changed their last name when they married.
In 2014 Ruby Barber, a 92-year-old woman from Texas with an expired driver’s license, faced incredible obstacles to get an ID in order to vote. Incredibly, Barber was unable to obtain an identification card that would allow her to vote, despite providing her social security card, two utility bills, an expired driver’s license and a Medicare card. Barber couldn’t provide her birth certificate because one did not exist. Barber said, “I’m sure (my birth) was never reported because I was born in a farmhouse with a coal oil lamp.” Eventually Barber was granted her constitutional right to vote when her birthday was discovered in the 1940 U.S. Census. Baber’s story illustrates how burdensome voter identification laws can be for elderly Americans. These types of laws could discourage otherwise eligible voters from going to the polls on Election Day.
Outside of the obvious fact that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote, a small group of people can make a big difference in the result of an election. In 2014 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study, “Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws,” that indicated that stringent voter ID laws can suppress voter turnout by two to three percentage points. Further to the point, the study demonstrated that senior voter turnout was decreased by one to two percentage points because of changes to voter identification laws. While mere percentage points might not seem like a lot of people, this reduction in voter turnout can mean thousands of lost votes in a single state. Elections can be won or lost based on a few thousand votes.
Proponents of voter identification laws argue they are needed to stop voter fraud at the polls. While voter fraud at the polls is a reasonable initial fear to have, studies and statistics don’t provide any evidence of meaningful voter fraud. Voter fraud is just not a problem in the United States. Professor Justin Levitt at California’s Loyola School of Law in a study discovered only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation, between 2000 and 2014, when 1 billion ballots were cast. Obviously any voter fraud is unacceptable, still, I don’t think 31 allegations of voter impersonation is enough justification to make it considerably more difficult for seniors to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote.
In the U.S. we should be thinking of new and creative ways to increase voter turnout by passing legislation that ensures every senior entitled to vote is able to cast a ballot on Election Day. Sadly, state governments around the country have implemented policies that make the simple act of voting for seniors too burdensome all in the name of stopping fraudulent voting at the polls, a problem which doesn’t exist.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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