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Do Voter ID Laws Prevent Fraud, Or Dampen Turnout?

Pennsylvania voters show identification as they sign in to vote during the Republican primary in Philadelphia in April.
Jessica Kourkounis
Getty Images
Pennsylvania voters show identification as they sign in to vote during the Republican primary in Philadelphia in April.

Ahead of the 2012 presidential election, key states have adopted voter ID laws and other measures that could affect voter turnout. It's created a national controversy about who will be most affected.

According to the New York Times, 33 states now have laws requiring identification for voting, and five require specific kinds of photo IDs to vote.

On Wednesday, a Pennsylvania judge upheld that state's new voter ID law, despite a challenge from plaintiffs who said it would disenfranchise many poor, minority and elderly voters. Wednesday's decision is expected to be appealed to the state's Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who was instrumental in passing the law, tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that it provides safeguards against voter fraud. He says without a photo ID in place, "there's fictitious voter registrations that have been filed, which result in fictitious individuals being on the voter rolls, which then anybody can vote as that fictitious individual. And you have illegal aliens that are voting, or foreign nationals that are here legally that may be voting that can be prevented through this."

Nate Persily, a professor of law and political science at Columbia Law School whose research and writing focuses on voting and election law, calls the fraud claims overblown. But he added: "I tend to think that the effects of these [voter ID] laws will not be as great as the critics think or that the proponents hope for."

Interview Highlights:

On Pennsylvania partisan politics

Daryl Metcalfe: "The majority of Democrats that are trying to stop voter photo ID don't want to see the fraud stopped. ...

"All of the opposition from the NAACP, the ACLU, all the Democrats that voted against this and the House and Senate in Pennsylvania, they are trying to protect status quo. I believe they are trying to protect the fraud that they know they have happen at the polls that allows some of them to win."

On voter fraud identification

Metcalfe: "We've had absentee ballot fraud committed here in Butler County back in 1999 that ended up getting prosecuted. The individual that got prosecuted ended up getting a [wrist slap] instead of being hammered about it, as they should have been. ...

"This whole focus on how much fraud's occurring, and what kind of fraud are you stopping — you really can't identify the fraud without having a check-and-balance in the first place, so to identify how much impersonation is going on, we need some process in place where we could actually identify it."

On protecting voters' rights

Metcalfe: "We have millions of people voting here ... and across this country. Those millions of legal voters deserve to have their votes protected. Every legally cast vote should be protected from being undermined by the forces of corruption, and individuals have a responsibility under the new law to secure the ID they will need, and whether somebody's cashing a check, or whether they're getting prescription cough medicine."

On securing IDs ahead of the election

Metcalfe: "People need photo ID to function within our economy, and we've left ample time passing this law early in the year — not requiring it until November. We've left ample time for every citizen that didn't have ID to secure the documents they would need to get that ID."

On whether the laws will affect poor and minorities

Nate Persily: "We don't know for sure whether that's going to be true. It's true if you look at the non-ID population that [it] is overrepresented among racial minorities, and that has been shown in Texas and Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But again, some of those people would not have voted anyway, so it's difficult empirically to say what share of the likely voter population would not vote as a result of a voter ID law.

"Nevertheless, if what we're trying to answer is whether this law has a disparate impact in that it's going to maybe deter minority voters at a greater rate than nonminority voters, then yes, I think you can see that effect. The partisan effects, it's really hard to figure out. In Indiana, they had a voter ID law in effect when Barack Obama won that state in the 2008 election and black turnout actually went up. Of course, the fact that black turnout went up had a lot to do with him being on the ballot, so maybe if there hadn't been a voter ID law, then we would have had a greater number of African-Americans that were turning out in that race anyway, but it's very difficult to say exactly what the partisan and racial disparate impact is going to be."

On how voting has changed

Persily: "In the last election, about a quarter of Americans cast their votes early or absentee. And so we are slowly moving to an electoral system, which is very different than the way we conceive it in our civics textbooks, where we have this celebratory day on a Tuesday where everybody votes at once. Instead, we've been having elections that last for about a month before the election and then culminate on Election Day. So it's likely that roughly a third or more of Americans will cast their votes early or absentee this time. And soon, in the next five to 10 years, we may be talking about a majority of Americans casting their votes by mail, early or absentee."

On a nonpartisan civil voting process

Persily: "Most countries in the world have figured a way around this problem. We haven't. The people who are in charge of our elections are either elected or appointed by someone who's elected, and so we have not developed a systematic way to insulate these people from partisan pressures. Different states are better or worse in their propensity to have partisanship creep into the process, but I wouldn't say it has to do with the institutions they've chosen, a lot of it has to do with the culture of the places that do this. ...

"We see it throughout election administration and these rules: It's either incumbent driven or partisan driven, and so it's very difficult to get the politicians out of it. Usually I think the best systems are ones where both parties are able to look over the shoulders of others, so that you can at least have monitoring by the ins and outs at the same time and I think that is most healthy way to probably proceed."

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Corrected: September 6, 2012 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio version of this story, our guest Daryl Metcalfe says Pennsylvania state Rep. Bernie O'Neill testified on the state House floor that his vote had been stolen by someone who went to his polling location and voted in his place. Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies has since discovered that O'Neill's vote wasn't stolen, and he has misgivings about Metcalfe's citing the incident in support of the state's voter ID law.