Restrictive voter ID laws have become increasingly salient as more states pass or introduce legislation making identification a central part of voting (Hajnal et. al., 2017). These laws, where “the strictest require photo identification in order to cast a regular ballot” started popping up in 2008 in Georgia and Indiana (Hajnal et. al., 2017, p. 5). More recently, the Georgia Election Integrity Act of 2021 was passed, which includes a provision stating that absentee voters will have to verify their identity multiple times to vote (Corasantini & Epstein, 2021).
…such form shall require the elector to provide… the number of his or her Georgia driver’s license or identification card issued … If such elector does not have a Georgia driver’s license or identification card … the elector shall affirm this fact in the manner prescribed in the application and the elector shall provide a copy of a form of identification … (p. 38)
…the elector shall print the number of his or her Georgia driver’s license number or identification card … in the space provided on the outer oath envelope. (p. 58)
The New York Times points out that this provision will depress absentee voting, and will create more opportunities for voters to error, leading to a rejection of their ballot (Corasantini & Epstein, 2021).
The impact of these laws varies based on race. Recent studies “strongly suggest that these laws do, in fact, represent a major burden that significantly affects minorities” (Kuk et. al., 2022, p. 132; Hajnal et. al., 2017). This burden comes mainly from differences in ID possession rates and variation in poll worker behavior in response to these laws (Hajnal et. al., 2017). A series of 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) studies showed that photo identification was possessed at “rates varied by racial and ethnic groups”. In some states, African Americans possessed state photo identification at a rate 4 points lower than whites (GAO, 2014). Possession is not the only problem though. Another recent finding is that minorities are asked for identification at higher rates, potentially creating a chilling effect on participation (Hajnal et. al., 2017). “If minorities feel that they are being targeted and are not welcomed by the white majority at the polls, they may feel reluctant to participate whether or not they have identification” (Hajnal et. al., 2017, p. 15).
Due to this new burden on minority voting, strict photo ID laws are eroding one of the most basic institutions of democracy: elections. If democracy is essentially “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions… by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will”, then restrictive ID laws that reduce the ability for certain groups to participate in election hurt democracy because only a subset of “the people” are electing individuals (Shumpeter, 1943, p. 250). When voting rights are constricted by laws that discourage voting, free and fair elections are endangered.
The theme of restricted participation, especially for African Americans, recurs throughout the history of American politics (Lieberman et. al., 2017). “Conflict over civic membership and status has been shaped profoundly by the racial structure of American society” (Lieberman et. al., 2017, p. 16). This racial structure includes not only social inequities, but also the institutional racism and discrimination that has existed since America’s founding. Laws like Georgia’s are only the latest in a series of repressive policies that have made it more difficult for African Americans to vote (Lieberman et. al., 2017, p. 16). In Nikole Hannah-Jones’ podcast, 1619, she argues that when the Constitution was written, “they called [America] a democracy, but it wasn’t one, not yet” (2019, 19:06). Slavery was not abolished for another 90 years. Upon abolishment, “they pass the 15th Amendment, which probably is the most important amendment when we’re considering what a democracy is supposed to be”, with this amendment guaranteeing voting rights to men regardless of race (Hannah-Jones, 2019, 27:23). However, as the Jim Crow era began, this guarantee was repeatedly and aggressively subverted. Formal measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as informal intimidation tactics, were routinely used to suppress African American voting (Hannah-Jones, 2019). Discriminatory measures like these have shaped American politics in an especially obvious manner when compared to modern voter identification laws.
By instituting strict voter identification laws, Georgia and similar states are facilitating America’s backslide to a time in which democracy was far from complete in the United States. “The effects of voter ID laws… are eerily similar to the impact of measures like poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and at-large elections which were used by the white majority… to help deny blacks many basic rights” (Hajnal et. al., 2017, p. 26). This has been facilitated by American political institutions, with state legislatures creating these laws, as allowed by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down the requirement that states with a history of voting discrimination “preclear” changes to electoral laws with the Justice Department. Thus the door was opened for Georgia to create laws parallelling those of the Jim Crow South (Georgia’s new voting law…, 2021).
Strict voter identification laws are far from an outright ban on participation by certain groups, or from open voter fraud. But their subtlety is part of what makes them so dangerous. Laws like Georgia’s are a form of democratic backsliding, a form that is marked by “profound ambiguity” (Bermeo, 2016, p. 15). Democratic backsliding is “the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy” (Bermeo, 2016, p. 5). In the case of strict voter identification laws, often Republican legislatures are constricting voting rights, therefore damaging a key institution of democracy (Georgia’s new election law…, 2021). These laws are a form of democratic backsliding that scholar Nancy Bermeo calls “strategic election manipulation”, actions “aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents” (Bermeo, 2016, p. 13). This categorization appears to apply in the case of Georgia’s law. Laws like Georgia’s “are generally passed by Republicans and tend to emerge in states with larger minority populations and greater partisan competition” (Hajnal et. al., 2017, p. 364). That “parties have sharply divided along racial lines” means that laws disparately impacting minority racial and ethnic groups could negatively impact liberal participation in elections (Lieberman et. al., 2017, p. 17). Again, this approach is subtly antidemocratic, creating unique challenges in demonstrating the danger of these laws to democracy (Bermeo, 2016). Supporters of strict ID laws highlight the goal of preventing fraud in elections, which is a much more obvious threat to democracy (Georgia’s new voting law…, 2021). But the goal of fraud prevention has to be balanced against the implicit disparate impact of strict photo identification laws.
Without considering this balance, a significant subset of voters is constrained in their ability to participate in American democracy. The constraints brought up by Georgia’s Election Integrity Act are a form of democratic erosion and represent a threat to American democracy. But despite these challenges, there is hope for counteracting this form of democratic erosion. “The defense of norms and institutions of inclusive citizenship will be exceptionally important as we go forward”, and many policy makers and activists have risen to defend the words of the Fifteenth Amendment and the democratic ideal of equality (Lieberman et. al., 2016, p. 25). “The possibilities for reversing backsliding before an unambiguous regime change occurs are real”, and can be accomplished when the danger of laws minimizing voting rights are recognized (Bermeo, 2016, p. 17).
Bermeo, N. (2016). On democratic backsliding. Journal of Democracy 27(1), 5-19. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012
Corasantini, N., & Epstein, R. J. (2021, April 2). What Georgia’s voting law really does. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/us/politics/georgia-voting-law-annotated.html#link-75c1f815
Election Integrity Act of 2021, 21 LC 28 0338S (2021). https://www.legis.ga.gov/api/legislation/document/20212022/201498
Georgia’s new voting law triggers legal challenges. (2021, March 31). The Economist. https://www.economist.com/united-states/2021/03/31/georgias-new-voting-law-triggers-legal-challenges
Hajnal, Z., Lajevardi, N., & Nielsen, L. (2017). Voter identification laws and the suppression of minority votes. The Journal of Politics, 79(2), 363-379. https://doi.org/10.1086/688343
Hannah-Jones, N. (Host). (2019, August 23). The fight for a true democracy (1) [Audio podcast episode]. In 1619. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/podcasts/1619-podcast.html
Kuk, J., Hajnal, Z., & Lajevardi, N. (2022). A disproportionate burden: strict voter identification laws and minority turnout. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 10(1), 126-134. https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2020.1773280
Lieberman, R. C., Mettler, S., Pepinsky, T. B., Roberts, K. M., & Valelly, R. (2017). Trumpism and American democracy: History, comparison, and the predicament of liberal democracy in the United States. [Working paper].
Schumpeter, J. A. (1943). Capitalism, socialism & democracy. Routledge. [PDF].United States Government Accountability Office. (2014). Elections: Issues related to state voter identification laws. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-14-634