Rupert Cornwell: Voter ID – the Republicans' secret weapon

Out of America: New laws requiring photo identification at the polling booth will deter some Democrat voters, and could prove decisive

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What is more reasonable than asking people to produce an official photo identity when they vote? After all, you must show an ID card to get into many public buildings, let alone to board a plane. So what's wrong with making sure people are who they claim to be when they exercise that most precious civic right of choosing those who govern them?

Alas, in the US the question is rather more complicated. Right now a panel of federal appeal court judges in Washington DC is considering the legality of a Texas law requiring voters to show a photo ID. And their decision could conceivably decide the result of the forthcoming presidential election. Texas is one of eight states that have either introduced or want to introduce photo IDs, and one of 20 that have tightened ID regulations in the past decade or so. Listen to its lawyers, and you'd imagine furtive armies of people turn up at polling booths around the Lone Star state under a string of aliases, ticking the box of candidates that they (or the sinister political fixers paying them) are bent on electing. "Vote early, vote often," as the old saying goes.

Reality is more humdrum. Yes, voting fraud exists here. Take the case of Lessadolla Sowers, an enterprising official of the NAACP civil rights organisation in Mississippi, who was convicted of casting no fewer than 10 illicit votes in the state's Democratic primary in 2007 – six in the name of different living individuals and four on behalf of dead people (a flourish that brings to mind Earl Long's jesting tribute to his corrupt home state of which he was three times governor: "When I die I want to be buried in Louisiana, so I can stay active in politics.")

Unfortunately, Ms Sowers' transgressions have little to do with the problem at hand. She was faking absentee votes, the field that is most vulnerable to identity theft, and a far cry from the one abuse that tougher ID requirements might theoretically stamp out: the impersonation at the ballot box of one registered voter by another. In fact, such cases are astonishingly rare – and, in these strapped economic times, certainly not worth either the energy expended by state legislatures to pass such laws, or the money paid to pricey lawyers to defend them in the courts.

Under George W Bush, the Justice Department investigated voter fraud nationwide over a five-year period, and won precisely 86 convictions. That cumulative wrongdoing, it might be noted, adds up to less than one-sixth of the 537-vote margin by which Bush officially defeated Al Gore in the contested 2000 vote in Florida. In Texas itself, the story is the same. Since 2004, exactly 39,072,039 votes have been cast in major elections in the state, while state prosecutors are examining 62 cases of potential fraud during those years. Even if all result in convictions, the votes in question would amount to 0.0001 per cent of the total. What's more, many of those cases probably involved convicted criminals or immigrants who didn't know they could not vote. It hardly adds up to a mortal threat to American democracy. Indeed, voter ID is a solution in search of a problem, about as relevant as legislation banning the consumption of dinosaur meat.

So why the fuss? In one sense, the debate is part of a broader one over national ID cards. If every US citizen had to carry one of these, end of (imagined) problem. Voters would be obliged to show their card when they voted, but since everyone would already have one, nobody could complain. But like Britain, the US wants no truck with a national identity card. The result is national schizophrenia. According to polls, 70 per cent of Americans favour voter ID, but perish the thought of a mandatory national card, the start of a slippery slope leading to Nazi Germany.

Deep down though, the fuss isn't about preserving the integrity of elections. It's about winning elections. Voter ID is basically a Republican gambit to suppress the Democratic vote, intended to make it harder for blacks, minorities and the urban poor, Democratic constituencies all, to exercise their constitutional right.

Once, when Democrats were the Jim Crow party, suppression was achieved by poll taxes, literacy tests and the like. But that ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a centrepiece of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation. Instead we now have voter ID laws that can only make voting more complicated for blacks and the poor, who are less likely to have a driving licence, the most common form of ID here. And it's no coincidence that the measures have been adopted in states controlled by Republicans, the party that has replaced the Democrats as the dominant political force in the South.

In Texas, you could argue that the debate is largely academic, since the state is already in the bag for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. But electoral vote-rich Pennsylvania, a top Romney target in November, is another matter. In recent times, the state has narrowly gone Democratic. In 2012, who knows?

Last month, Mike Turzai, the majority leader in the Pennsylvania legislature, let the cat out of the bag when he boasted to local Republican officials of the passage of voter ID, "which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania". Turzai's law, like that of Texas, is under challenge. But if it is upheld, then black turnout will most probably decline in the state's two big population centres of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, both of them vital Democratic strongholds.

American elections do have real scandals – from the cynical gerrymandering of Congressional districts to create safe seats, to election day robo-calls from one party telling voters of the other not to bother to turn out since their man's already won; from the "butterfly" ballot papers that cost Gore Florida 12 years ago, to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling of 2010 that allows unlimited corporate campaign contributions. But a few dozen voters who impersonate others are not one of them.

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