The first point to understand is how common these laws already are — both domestically and internationally. According to the National Conference of State Legislature, there are 30 states in which voters will be required to show some form of ID in the November elections (17 of these states require a photo ID). In some states, like Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas, voters who are unable to show ID at the polls are given a provisional ballot and can still vote.
What the U.S. lacks is any sort of standard ID law at the federal level. But beyond our borders, such ID laws are the norm rather than the exception. Canada, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, and the Netherlands (to name a few) all require ID at the polls. In Mexico, our neighbor to the south, all
residents need to have a photo ID issued by the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) in order to vote. In 2010, fully 70 percent of the voting age population had a photo ID issued by the IFE. (This ID is also used for transaction other than voting, acting as an official standard ID across the entire country.)
Why have so many other developed countries decided that voter ID laws are not such a bad thing after all? Preventing voter fraud might be most obvious reason, but there are others. For instance, requiring an ID at the polls creates an incentive for individuals who are less likely to have an ID to get one. Obtaining an ID for the purpose of participating in an election can lead to positive spillovers, where previously under-served individuals are now empowered to play a greater role in the political process and the formal economy more broadly.
Opponents might respond that the negative consequences (e.g. suppressed turnout) outweigh these benefits. But thinking at the margin here is important. Individuals who do not presently have an ID are also more likely to not vote -- regardless of whether the ID is required. According to an analysis published by Reuters, just one percent of those individuals interested on voting have no ID. Thus, a voter ID law is unlikely to exclude as large a share of the population as is commonly thought.
Of course, guidance on the ID process is important, as is providing ample time for voters to obtain IDs. For the Latino population in particular, language barriers may need to be overcome. But neither of these challenges is a compelling enough reason to set aside ID laws entirely. New technological developments have also made providing an ID easier and cheaper than ever before. Having an official ID law promotes the culture of lawfulness, and provides spillover economic benefits for previously under-served populations — both benefits that should be encouraged and cherished. It’s time for the United States to join much of the rest of the developed world in passing one.
Blanco is assistant professor of Economics in the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.