Voting Rights in the United States

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Shown above is an American driver's license. This is one of the common ID's people use at the polls.

The right to vote and participate in the civic process is vital to a democracy. It allows citizens to keep their elected officials accountable and ensures that laws enacted are reflective of the country's needs. Since the ratification of the United States Constitution, the right to vote has been hotly debated and the disfranchisement of different groups continue to be of concern in the present day. The Constitution has since been amended several times and landmark legislation and Supreme Court decisions have been introduced to expand access to the ballot box.

Although people of different race, gender, age, economic status and levels of literacy are allowed to vote now, voter suppression has taken on new forms, including state sanctioned voter ID laws. As of 2018, 34 states have passed some for of law requiring some form of official identification in order to vote, the overwhelming amount of them have been passed under Republican Governors and State Legislatures. [1] As the United States remains one of the only democracies to not automatically register their citizens to voter rolls, supporters of voter ID laws believe that these measures can "safeguard against voter fraud" while critics believe these laws are form of voter suppression as a "modern poll tax".[2][3]

This article recognizes that there are other historical, socio-political, economic and cultural barriers to voting. However, because of the limited space permitted, this text will only focus on Voter ID Laws and their impact on specified groups of the U.S. population. This article will not explain in detail other state-sponsored ways of voter discrimination such as blocking felons' right to vote or the broader voter fraud debate (whether voter fraud is a prevalent and widespread issue).


The original Constitution of the United States did not specify who can vote. In the absence of any specifications or requirements, federal lawmakers largely differed to their state counterparts to enact legislation and the ability for different citizens to vote varied from state to state.

The 15th Amendment passed in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period prohibited the government from denying citizen's the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". Although women, Native Americans and other minorities were still not allowed to vote, this step forward prompted many state lawmakers to use more indirect methods to discourage minority turnout. Poll taxes and literacy tests are examples of these barriers that do not explicitly target a minority group, however, because African American's at the time tended to have lower levels of income and education, lawmakers could anticipate the overwhelming effect this would have on minorities. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act banned these discriminatory practices and African American turnout in elections rose dramatically. [4]

Modern Legislation and Significant Court Cases

Federal-level Example

The most pertinent piece of federal legislation concerning the use of ID to vote is the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The law was written in response to a large amount of ballots being disqualified in the 2000 Presidential Election for errors in registration. It required all new voters to bring ID if they had registered by mail and had no previously verified their identity with a driver's license or their social security numbers.

State-level Example

Although some states have required the use of ID at polls since the mid 1900's, a 2005 law passed in Indiana was the first attempt to require government issued d ID. The law was upheld in a 2008 Supreme Court Case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, inspiring other states to take similar action.


An overwhelming number of researchers have found a distinct correlation between voter ID laws and depressed voter turnout since these laws became more common.Poor voters who may not be able to afford travel by cars and airplanes will often be disenfranchised by these laws because they lack the resources and motivation to procure driver's licenses and passports. Felons, who are already blocked from voting through legislation in several states, often lack the financial means to get an ID as well. Economic barriers, by extension, disproportionately impact minority voters as they tend to be poorer, less educated and face additional language barriers. Although the Voting Rights Act specifies that election officials need to have voting material translated if 5% or over 10,000 voters in the area are not proficient in English, language barriers still exist for minorities that live outside ethnic clusters. Undocumented immigrants can also struggle to obtain government issue ID as they may feel unsafe disclosing personal information to the government.

Some states also require an existing piece of government ID in order to obtain a birth certificate, passport or drivers license. This means that those who've lost their birth certificates before acquiring a passport or drivers license are stuck in the difficult position of not being able to get ID to vote, or to go through the complicate process of getting another birth certificate. This problem often affects elderly voters who might not have the proper credentials to obtain government issued ID.

Newly weds who have chosen to change their names also face substantial barriers to voting. For example, couples may face the additional obstacle or signing an affidavit attesting that they are the same person if their name on an ID and voter roll is different.[5] Other groups that are disadvantaged by these laws are those that are physically impaired, as it will be more difficult to physically get to these government agencies.

Changes to IDs

Many states require voters to change their name on voter rolls weeks in advance of an election. This disenfranchises many voters that think they could make these changes to their personal information the day of an election. For example, an Ohio law that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court stated that voters who haven't voted in two years or return a proof-of-residence card by mail may be kicked off the ballot without further explicit notice. [6] Voters will then have to register again prior to an election. According to Demos, a voting right's organization, only fifteen states allow their voters to register the same day they will go to the ballot box [7]

Legislation in individual states are also not applied consistently. When disputes arise, decisions are sometimes made by undertrained or short term staff and volunteer. In Texas for example, if their is a discrepancy between the name on the voter roll and ID, a poll worker that determines the names aren't "substantially similar" can demand proof. [8]

Partisan Motivations

Of the states that have passed legislation requiring voter ID's, only one (Rhode Island) was a Democratic-leaning state. Observers believe that the reason these laws are more prevalent in Republican states is because they disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning voting blocs such as women and minorities. For example, the Texas dominated state government passed their voter ID law that permitted gun licenses (gun owners lean Republican) while rejecting college student cards (younger people lean Democratic). Both gun licenses and college registration requires a similar amount of proof and government ID to obtain.

Alternative methods of Voting and Voting Verification

Some low cost and accessible alternatives to voter ID law the National Conference of State Legislatures have suggested include:

  • Have voters sign affidavits.
  • Have voters provide their legal signature.
  • Have voters state their personal information to an election official.

A commission led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State Jim Baker also suggested keeping voter ID laws but providing assistance when obtaining these ID's and for states to provide free drivers' licenses. [9]

Related information

The American Civil Liberties webpage on Voter ID Laws and why they oppose these types of legislation.

The Brennan Centre for Justice is an organization named after Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. This think-tank does not believe voter fraud is a prevalent issue.

The Heritage Foundation is a Conservative think-tank that advocates for Voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud.


[10] [11] [12]

  1. [Conference of State Legislatures]
  2. [[Hicks, W., McKee, S., Sellers, M., & Smith, D. (2015). A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States. Political Research Quarterly, 68(1), 18-33. Retrieved from| JOURNAL ARTICLE A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States]]
  3. Davidson, C. (2009). The Historical Context of Voter Photo-ID Laws. PS: Political Science and Politics, 42(1), 93-96. Retrieved from Historical Context of Voter Photo-ID Laws]]
  4. Davidson, C. (2009). The Historical Context of Voter Photo-ID Laws.
  5. Moore, Martha T. State voter ID laws snares women with name changes.
  6. Lopez, German. Supreme Court's conservative justices uphold Ohio's voter purge system.
  7. [[1]]
  8. Moore, Martha T. State voter ID laws snares women with name changes.
  9. Balz, Dan. Carter-Baker Panel to Call for Voting Fixes.
  10. Hershey, M. (2009). What We Know about Voter-ID Laws, Registration, and Turnout. PS: Political Science and Politics, 42(1), 87-91. Retrieved from
  11. Sobel, R., & Smith, R. (2009). Voter-ID Laws Discourage Participation, Particularly among Minorities, and Trigger a Constitutional Remedy in Lost Representation. PS: Political Science and Politics, 42(1), 107-110. Retrieved from
  12. Hicks, W., McKee, S., Sellers, M., & Smith, D. (2015). A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States. Political Research Quarterly, 68(1), 18-33. Retrieved from