Voter ID laws are in the news again, as the state of North Carolina faces a legal challenge to a 2013 law requiring voters to show one of six state-approved ID cards at voting stations.
Supporters of the measures, which have been passed in many other states, cite the need to stop electoral fraud as a reason for requiring the ID cards. Opponents argue the new laws disproportionately target black and Latino voters and do not prevent the main type of voter fraud.
On the second point, the opponents of the measures appear to be correct. As Barry Burden, a Wisconsin political science professor, argued before North Carolina legislators, the process for submitting absentee ballots is a better place to start.
“If the rationale were to prevent voter fraud, it would focus on absentee ballots … The consensus is fraud is more common among mail ballots," said Burden, according to The News & Observer.
Instead, voter ID laws in most placed are designed to stop one particular type of voter fraud: voter impersonation. This is an incredibly inefficient way to commit electoral fraud, and a study cited by The Washington Post only found 31 instances in all U.S. general, primary, special and municipal elections since 2000.
But voter impersonation is one of the main reasons cited by officials in various states for enacting the new laws. The other reason, given by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2014, was that the laws "enhanced public confidence," which was defined somewhat arbitrarily.
If there is no evidence suggesting voter ID laws can stop the type of fraud that appears most frequently in U.S. elections, there has been unsettling developments in some states that suggest there may be ulterior motives behind some of the new laws.
In Alabama, for example, lawmakers enacted a new voter ID law in 2014. Then in fall 2015, the state announced that 30 Department of Motor Vehicles offices would be closing due a "tough budgetary situation," according to Talking Points Memo.
Although the state continued to insist that voters would be able to obtain state-approved IDs, the move enraged voting rights activists and ended up having the state face a federal lawsuit, which will be argued next month.
Alabama reportedly rejected even modest measures to help voters obtain IDs after the DMV closures, refusing to allow public housing authorities to issue them.
The idea that voter IDs enhance confidence seems to ring most true among legislators, rather than among citizens in states which have enacted the new laws. In contrast, there is little evidence that they address the main types of voter fraud in the U.S. They may even have the effect of pushing more would-be voters into the absentee system, which, as mentioned before, is a far more frequent method of fraud than impersonation.