Could a voter ID compromise be a win for voting rights?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Faced with the reality that their ambitious voting rights reform plan may be permanently stalled in the Senate, Democrats have begun to soften their opposition to a policy they once criticized as the epitome of voter suppression: voter ID laws.

The specifics vary from state to state, but voter ID laws generally require a person to present some form of identification in order to cast a ballot. These laws were relatively rare in the United States until the past two decades, when they became increasingly common in states led by Republican legislatures. In 2000, only 13 states had voter ID laws on the books; by 2020, the number had swelled to 36. Some of the restrictive election bills passed in red states in the wake of Joe Biden’s presidential win in November have expanded voter ID requirements, specifically for mail-in voting.

For years, Democrats have portrayed voter ID as a voter suppression tool used by Republicans — alongside strategies like gerrymandering and voter roll purges — to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters, claims supported by some scholarly research and court rulings. Over the past two weeks, however, many lawmakers who had been the most vocal opponents of voter ID expressed support for a voting rights proposal from moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia that would establish a nationwide voter ID requirement. A key element of Manchin’s plan is that it would expand the list of acceptable identification beyond the government-issued ID required in most states to permit alternatives like utility bills.

Why there’s debate

Many prominent Democrats have backed Manchin’s proposal, saying the expanded list of acceptable documents will mean the estimated 21 million Americans who lack government-issued photo IDs would still be able to vote. Others on the left have argued it’s worth accepting the less onerous version of voter ID if it means that critical voting rights provisions in Manchin’s proposal — like expanded early voting, a ban on partisan gerrymandering and automatic voter registration — can become law. Some of that view may be informed by the fact that, despite Democratic criticism over the years, more than 80 percent of the public supports voter ID laws.

Conservatives have continued to argue that it’s entirely reasonable to ask people to prove their identity with a government-issued ID in order to prevent fraud — though cases of in-person voter impersonation are exceedingly rare. Utility bills or other nonofficial documents would be too easy to fake, they argue. They also point to a significant body of research that suggests ID laws don’t suppress voter turnout to a significant degree.

Critics on the left say any form of voter ID, even from a broader list of acceptable documents, will disenfranchise vulnerable voters. At a basic level, they say it’s wrong to create any extra barriers to voting in the name of preventing fraud that essentially never happens.

What’s next

Even though it pares back some of the more contentious measures of Democrats’ original voting rights bill, Manchin’s compromise still faces the same reality in Congress: It is likely doomed to fail in the Senate as long as the filibuster remains in place. Manchin and fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have repeatedly said they oppose any plans to kill the filibuster, but some recent reporting suggests Manchin may consider supporting an exception to the rule that allows bills expanding voting rights to pass by a simple majority vote.


Voter ID laws place an unfair burden on people of color

“Making it harder for anyone to vote should require very strong reasons, especially when it’s clear that the extra burden falls along ethnic lines or on the poor. It’s true that Black voters, for example, are less likely to have driver’s licenses. Therefore, even if it turns out that those voters are able to overcome such restrictions, as a group they’re making a greater effort to cast a ballot.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

ID laws are unnecessary because voter fraud isn’t an actual problem

“For years, the more common GOP response to losing voters has been to try to restrict voting by the other side, with schemes like voter ID requirements — a notion that may sound reasonable on its face, but in the end is just a deliberately cumbersome solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Significant voter fraud hasn’t been a factor in American elections in generations.” — Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Even with more options, ID laws will disenfranchise vulnerable people

“You don’t have a utility bill if you don’t have a home. And so what they’re basically saying is, if you’re unhoused, you don’t deserve to participate in democracy.” — Spread the Vote founder Kat Calvin to WBUR

Voter ID laws are a legacy of more blatant voter suppression from the past

“What’s endemic in this nation’s long political life is its inability to stomach full citizenship for every American. Jim Crow’s descendants thrive in every new voter identification law, every hurdle to mail-in voting, and every polling place shuttered in Black and brown communities.” — Renée Graham, Boston Globe

The type of ID required matters enormously

“While some advocates have inveighed against any voter ID, in fact the fight often has been over what sort of voter ID is acceptable. … The voting reform compromise from [Manchin], in that sense, does represent a consensus view in the country at large. In general, the public wants voting to be easier, but accompanied by reasonable voter ID laws.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

The benefits of other voting rights provisions are worth the trade-off

“Consider what Democrats, and democracy, will get in return for this concession. Automatic voter registration. An end to partisan gerrymandering. Mandatory early voting nationwide. Joe Manchin’s offer will leave some voters out. That’s bad. But the number of voters who will be enfranchised by this proposal outnumbers — by orders of magnitude — the number who will be left disenfranchised.” — David Litt, Atlantic

Anything other than government IDs is a recipe for fraud

“Manchin’s bill wouldn’t require photo ID. Anyone would be permitted to vote by showing a utility bill. … Anyone with a color printer can forge a utility bill.” — John Fund, Wall Street Journal

Making it easier to get government IDs would fix unfairness in the laws

“From my perspective, having voter ID laws is not racist and requiring citizens to show proof of who they are should not be a partisan issue. But I do believe that we must make access to forms of identification easier, particularly for the poor and elderly. If we are able to accomplish this, I believe most people would have no problem showing proof of identity to vote. It is not a burden as long as people have the means to procure IDs.” — Armstrong Williams, The Hill

Despite Democrats’ warnings, voter ID laws don’t suppress turnout

“There’s also no reason to wipe out every voter ID law in America, when research shows that even strict ID laws have had no effect on turnout.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images