Voter Identification Laws Set Off Alarm Bells for “On the Issues” Speakers

A cycle in which expansion of the right to vote is followed by efforts to suppress voting can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Professor Atiba Ellis. And the cycle continues now in ways that are keeping many people from voting and making voting much harder for others. 

“We seem to be repeating the same pattern over and over again,” Ellis said at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Thursday in the Lubar Center of Marquette Law School. Ellis, the Boden Visiting Professor at Marquette Law School this fall, is a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law who has made study of voting rights a focus of his scholarship. 

Joining Ellis in the program was Molly McGrath of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, who called the current surge of laws requiring such things as presentation of photo identification in order to vote “incredibly alarming.”  

McGrath agreed that in opinion polls, including the Marquette Law School Poll, requiring people to show photo identification is popular. “The idea does sound innocuous on its face,” she said.  But its effect in reality is to keep qualified people from voting or to make it difficult for them to vote. 

She said, “Voter ID is a solution in search of this non-existent problem.” Cases of people trying to vote using a false identity are “so exceedingly rare,” she said. She cited a study that found that from 2000 to 2014, there were about 30 cases of questionable and possibly criminal voting out of a billion votes cast nationwide.   

Ellis said that requirements to present identification carry “indirect costs” that fall disproportionately on low-income people and people with limited ways to obtain the needed proof. Those costs can include difficulty in getting birth certificates or proof of residency, the need to take time off of work to deal with getting the needed documents and ID cards, and difficulty with transportation.  

McGrath said that in Wisconsin, it was clear in 2016 that employees of Department of Motor Vehicles offices statewide where identification cards could be obtained were often giving wrong information to people that made obtaining the cards difficult.  

Ellis said that dozens of studies have found that voter identification laws have at least some impact on reducing the number of people who vote.  

Asked by Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, about President Trump’s claims that he won the popular vote for president in 2016 if illegal votes weren’t counted, both Ellis and McGrath said there was no evidence of that. Ellis said that what you believe about voter fraud shapes your attitude toward voter identification laws. People’s opinions are shaped by “a partisan feedback loop,” he said, and both Democrats and Republicans are “weaponizing” issues around voting.  

McGrath said voting should be a nonpartisan issue that focuses on allowing all people who meet the requirements to cast ballots.  

McGrath, a lawyer and a natïve of Wisconsin Rapids, said she continues her commitment of more than a decade to fighting against interference with voting. “My address is wherever the worst voting laws are,” she said. That means she has spent a lot of time recently in Kansas.  

Video of the one-hour program may be viewed by clicking here.  


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