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My own state of Pennsylvania passed a law a short time ago which requires people to show government-issued photo IDs to vote. The question is: why?
Before we can answer that question, we need to define exactly what we're talking about. "Voter fraud" is individuals casting ballots knowing they are not elegible to vote, in an attempt to defraud the election system. Note that there are a great many things that tend to get lumped into the term "voter fraud" which are really not the same thing: voting machines sometimes have technical glitches and don't record votes properly; voters and election officials, being human, sometimes make honest mistakes; sometimes outside groups spread disinformation about polling places and hours; incidents of thuggery and intimidation are not unheard of. These are all election administration problems to be sure, but conflating them as "voter fraud" makes it appear that real fraud is much more common than is actually the case.
The number of cases of outright voter fraud in Pennsylvania is vanishingly small. More people in the state are likely to be killed by lightning this year than would be charged with such a crime.
So why did the Legislature go to all the trouble, and the Governor sign the law? Such laws are only potentially worthwhile if they clearly prevent more problems than they create. These photo-ID laws only prevent individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls. If policymakers distinguished real voter fraud from the more common election irregularities which are wrongly labeled as voter fraud, it would become apparent that the limited benefits of laws like photo ID requirements are simply not worth the cost. They are more likely to disenfranchise a relatively large number of elegible voters than to bar access to the ballot box for the rare few. Just today the Brennan Center released a study showing that nearly 500,000 eligible voters in those states without IDs do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office. It's often said that it's better for ten guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to go to jail. Shouldn't the same logic apply here?
Of course, in politics, it's often logic be dammed. Royal Masset, the former political director for the Republican Party of Texas, concisely tied all of these strands together in a 2007 Houston Chronicle article concerning a highly controversial battle over photo identification legislation in Texas. Masset connected the inflated furor over voter fraud to photo identification laws and their expected impact on legitimate voters:
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