Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Are voter ID laws constitutional? (And are they a good idea?)

March 20, 2012 by NCC Staff


Should states require voters to show photo identification to vote?


As with just about any policy issue, there is a diversity of opinions. But perhaps the most endearing answer is one provided by a young visitor to the National Constitution Center. In response to the question, which was posed to visitors in the Center’s main exhibition, this thoughtful student responded, “No—because it shouldn’t matter what you look like.”


Obviously, this young person slightly misunderstood the issue - thinking, perhaps, that voters would be judged on the attractiveness of their ID photo. So what are the real issues up for debate? Here’s an overview of both sides.

In a nutshell

In this important election year, the issue of voter IDs divides Democrats and Republicans. Proponents of voter ID laws, mostly Republicans, maintain they are needed to prevent voter fraud and ensure free and fair elections. Opponents of voter ID laws, mostly Democrats,  argue that these laws unfairly limit access to the ballot, reducing voter participation.

In recent news

There are now 16 states that require photo ID to vote, and 16 more require some form of ID (not necessarily with a photo) to vote. (See a full map here.) Several states have brought this issue to the forefront of debates in the courts and legislatures.


Pennsylvania: Last week the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill requiring photo ID for voters, making it the 16th state to pass such a law.


Texas: Earlier last week the Justice Department rejected a voter ID law in Texas, forcing the law’s fate to be decided by a federal court in the coming weeks. The Texas law relies on federal approval due to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires that any changes to election practices in Texas, as well as eight other states and a few dozen counties, may not go into effect without the approval of the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Texas is now challenging that section of the Voting Rights Act.


Wisconsin: Also last week, a county judge struck down a Wisconsin state law requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls, arguing that it unconstitutionally barred eligible citizens from voting. Read the judge’s ruling here.


New Mexico: A man who garnered attention for successfully registering his dog, Buddy, to vote will likely face charges for his actions. The sheriff’s office is considering his case, which may include charges for a fourth-degree felony. Thomas Tolbert, the man who pulled the stunt, said, “I did it to show the system is broke.” (See video of the story here.)

For and against

Here are some of the arguments for voter ID laws:

  • Preventing voter fraud is essential to maintain the integrity of the voting process and the fairness of elections.
  • The overwhelming majority of registered voters have valid IDs and requiring that they present them to vote is not an undue burden.
  • There have been no cases where the Indiana law has been shown to violate a specific voter’s rights. The importance of preventing illegitimate voting outweighs any vague and undocumented risks.

Here are some of the arguments against voter ID laws:

  • These regulations disenfranchise many voters by imposing an unnecessary burden on the right to vote.
  • Voters least likely to have valid IDs tend to be poor people, people of color, women and the elderly, so voter ID laws unfairly fall hardest on these groups.
  • No one has ever been tried for impersonating another voter, which shows that voter fraud is not a significant problem and ID laws are unnecessary.

But is it constitutional?

In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2007), the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana state law that required all voters to present a photo ID. The majority opinion found that the burden placed on voters was “offset by the benefit of reducing the risk of fraud” and that the law was “eminently reasonable.”


Of course, with recent developments in several states, the Supreme Court may need to revisit this issue.


Sign up for our email newsletter