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National Issues

Time to get rid of voter ID laws

The American political system is, above all, founded on one central principle — democracy. Implicit in this principle is the right to vote. Although the eligibility requirements to vote have been expanding since the inception of the United States, a troubling trend has begun to emerge since the late 1970s — more and more states are beginning to require strict identification in order to vote.

Currently, 33 states require some form of identification to vote, 11 of which are strict in nature. While these laws are designed to reduce voter fraud and protect the integrity of elections, they tend to disproportionately affect the poor and minorities. In addition, studies have found that the incidence of voter fraud is infinitesimal in the U.S. and there is little to no evidence that voter ID laws have had any impact on reducing those miniscule numbers.

There is evidence, however, that strict voter identification laws have had a significant impact on the access to vote for certain demographics, specifically those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. The mere cost of obtaining adequate identification can prevent people from voting, as can time or geographic distance from identification services.

Supporters of strict voter identification laws argue there is no real impact on voter turnout by demographic; this logic is flawed, for it fails to account for individuals who don’t bother to register to vote at all due to the strict identification laws. When this factor is taken into account, these laws do impact voter turnout, as well as the demographic makeup of those who choose to vote.

Strict voter identification laws, such as the one in North Carolina, also have serious ramifications for the student vote. Out-of-state students can face difficulties obtaining adequate identification for the state in which they attend college. These can range from finding the time to go to an identification provision center to the loss of residency status in their home state, which has enormous implications when students apply for graduate or professional schools.

In turn, these difficulties lead to a decline in the already low student vote. For example, the potential loss of residency status in my home state has been a factor in my decision on where to vote; rather than voting in North Carolina, a swing state where a vote could make a difference, I’m choosing to vote in California, a state whose elections results are somewhat predictable.

While this may seems ostensibly insignificant, the amalgamated effect of a lower student vote, when combined with the decline in voter turnout from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, could be the margin by which a candidate wins an election. Any result from an election in which portions of society are discouraged from voting is, at the very least, not representative of the constituency.

The American political system prides itself on its democracy. It is ironic, then, that the principles that it claims to uphold are being undermined by laws which restrict the very basic tent of democracy — the right to vote.

Nikita Gawande, from San Ramon, California, is a sophomore majoring economics and public policy studies at Duke.


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