Voter identification laws have become a source of extreme partisan debate in the United States. The Republican party, which is decidedly mono-racial and mono-ethnic, tends to support strict voter identification laws, while the Democratic party, which is much more racially and ethnically diverse, tends to oppose them. Republicans base their support for tough voter identification laws on the notion that voter fraud is prevalent. Democrats base their opposition on the notion that voter identification laws disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities, and thus Republican support for such laws is simply an effort to suppress votes for Democrats. The literature on voter identification laws strongly backs up this claim: the adoption of stricter voter identification laws has occurred due to Republican takeovers of state legislatures). Some argue that the recent trend in voter identification laws represents a continuation of a larger trend of voter manipulation for electoral success, while others argue that it is substantively different in some ways. Regardless, it seems very clear that Republican-controlled state legislatures enact voter identification laws in an attempt to suppress likely Democratic voters. Some point to the fact that voter identification laws have not been universally enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures as suggesting that the laws are not partisan attempts at increasing electoral competitiveness. The difference lies in how competitive elections are expected to be: Republican-controlled legislatures do not often enact voter identification laws in uncompetitive elections, but are much more likely to do so in competitive elections. However, there seems to be reason for optimism for the Democratic party: the vast majority of studies on the matter indicate that voter identification laws have minimal, if any, effects on turnout. There are a variety of theories as to why this is the case. For example, the Democratic party may be driven to lead mobilization campaigns to ensure racial and ethnic minority Democratic voters have proper identification. The belief among existing Democratic voters and minority voters with proper identification that the laws are driven by partisanship may lead them to turn out at a higher rate. Regardless of the reason, it seems clear that these partisan attempts on the sanctity of the electoral process have been inefficacious.
However, the fact that partisan attempts at voter suppression largely seem to have failed should not end the conversation. Even if one accepts Schumpeter’s minimalist definition of democracy as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions… by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote,” the need for a “competitive struggle” necessarily implies the need for certain substantive rights. The most fundamental of those rights is of course the right to vote freely without any undue influences. Analyses of whether or not Republican efforts to suppress Democratic voters have been successful is undoubtedly important for assessing the health of American electoral rights. However, the fact that these efforts seem to have been unsuccessful should not distract from the fact that the efforts themselves represent an attack on the democratic qualities of the United States. I do not mean to be alarmist, to suggest that the very existence of democracy in the United States is immediately at threat due to these attempts at voter suppression. Indeed, the United States has long been characterized by voter suppression; one might argue that the United States is indeed at a high point in voter inclusiveness. In addition, as Huq and Ginsberg explain, “Rights-based liberalism is compromised by the systematic underenforcement of many individual rights. Politicians’ efforts to entrench themselves are endemic not occasional.” The United States does not represent the ideal constitutional liberal democracy, but no state does, and no state can. However, voter suppression can be uniquely dangerous to a democracy because it is the only way that politicians can directly influence who can vote, and thus directly influence their own electoral success. To that end, shaping electoral laws in one’s own favor is one of the primary mechanisms of so-called stealth authoritarianism. Stealth authoritarianism (known also as hybrid regimes, electoral authoritarianism, etc.) can be defined as “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends,” according to Varol. Stealth authoritarians attempt to propagate laws that, when taken alone, seem harmless, or even harmonious with democratic ends. However, when examined together, those supposed harmless laws can represent an effort to undermine democratic competition. Manipulation of electoral laws, including voter identification laws, with the intention of maintaining one’s power is one of the primary mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism, as identified by Varol. Thus, while voter identification laws taken alone might truly represent attempts by one party to eliminate voter fraud, while the other party attempts to benefit from it, if it is found in conjunction with other mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism, there may be cause for worry. And indeed, Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson have raised concerns about voter identification laws being part of a larger attempt to suppress minority voter access, from shortened early voting periods, to reduced polling hours and locations, to repeal of same day voter registration.
Again, I do not mean to suggest that American democracy is on its way out due to partisan attempts at voter identification laws designed to reduce electoral competition. However, the literature is clearly in consensus that voter identification laws are indeed motivated by partisanship. That alone is a concerning subversion (or at least, attempted subversion) of American democracy, whether or not they have been successful at suppressing votes. Potentially more concerning, however, is the notion that voter identification laws could be part of a broader attempt at voter suppression. In addition, any clear attempts to undermine democracy should be treated with serious concern: if a ruling party is willing to undermine democracy using voter suppression, it is likely willing to use other methods as well. So, while voter identification laws alone likely will not entail the end of American democracy as we know it, they may be indicative of a lessened commitment to democracy in the United States in general, and may be a portent of further antidemocratic action.