Once again, Michigan finds itself deliberating over a divisive issue that has been popping up across the country. No, it’s not a certain ballot proposal in question this time, but a challenge over the constitutionality of a 1996 state law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
The state Supreme Court heard this issue on Monday. Hopefully, the verdict will recognize the burden a photo ID requirement places on parts of the electorate, putting their access to the ballot box in jeopardy.
Former state Attorney General Frank Kelley wisely kept this law from taking effect nine years ago, ruling that it violated the 14th Amendment. In Michigan, about 350,000 registered voters do not have drivers’ licenses or state ID cards. If the law is upheld, roughly 5 percent of voters face possible disenfranchisement. The elderly, poor, disabled and members of minority groups are those least likely to have photo identification, and putting this law into effect would most affect their turnout at the polls.
Statistics in Detroit point to a particular inequality brought about by requiring photo IDs. Roughly one-third of Detroit residents don’t own cars, suggesting that a good share don’t hold drivers’ licenses either. Having to show photo ID might have little effect on residents of neighboring suburbs, but a good number of Detroit voters would be disenfranchised. Although the potential voters can still obtain state-issued photo IDs, the process of heading to the Secretary of State office to get one makes it harder than necessary for them to vote.
While the state House has already passed a bill enabling those who can’t afford the $10 state ID charge the chance to get one for free – it had to, or else the ID requirement for voting would constitute an illegal poll tax – many have trouble even getting to a Secretary of State office. While some branches have extended their hours beyond the usual nine-to-five, this still offers a limited time frame for those who hold two jobs, work long shifts or don’t have time to wait in painfully long lines. These problems don’t even take into consideration the people who lack transportation to the offices in the first place.
The arguments that photo IDs should be mandatory for voting are flawed. Some maintain that IDs would reduce election fraud, yet there has been no evidence of significant fraud in Michigan. The 1996 law does state that voters without photo ID could vote by signing an affidavit testifying to their identity, an exception that could still embarrass and discourage poor or elderly voters.
Prior to a judge striking down its own voter ID laws, Missouri sent out vans to issue IDs to the elderly for free. Regardless of the outcome of the 1996 law, Michigan would do well to follow Missouri’s example, as photo IDs are usually necessary for everything from getting a job to opening a bank account. But until every voter has an ID, enforcement of the 1996 law would disenfranchise a small but substantial part of the electorate.