The Voter ID Controversy: Real Or Memorex?

Proposals to require proof of citizenship when registering to vote and to show government-issued photo identification before being allowed to vote were declared dead on arrival last week in the legislature. Despite the lack of any proof of voter fraud or abuse, don’t expect the issue to go away.House bills 1039 and 1177 were both killed last week shortly after being introduced in a Democratic-led committee, on 7-4 party-line votes. The bills — to require people to show photo IDs to vote and prove U.S. citizenship when registering to vote — were identified by Republicans before this year’s legislative session as what some leaders hoped the GOP would rally around.

Specifically, the bills were among several that House Minority Whip Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, asked his colleagues to co-sponsor “as a showing of caucus unity” in a letter dated Dec. 27.

The issue is not Colorado-specific. Most Democrats and progressives, as well as people who work with the indigent, low-income, elderly and minority populations, have argued that forcing people to show photo IDs, or to prove their citizenship, would create roadblocks and disenfranchise blocs of American voters.

Furthermore, there is no proof that people are trying to cast votes illegally in the United States.

In fact, voter turnout in the United States has decreased in recent decades; in 2004, the last presidential election year, a little more than 55 percent of the voting-age population turned out, compared with 63 percent in 1960.

Currently, voters in United States elections must already be citizens. In Colorado, a number of documents have been deemed acceptable forms of identification when voters show up to their polls, including photo IDs or passports, as well as a copy of a current utility bill, a bank statement and paycheck, or a government document that shows the name and address of the voter.

Without any data showing that people are illegally casting votes, opponents have often described largely Republican-led efforts to install proof-of-citizenship requirements to vote a “solution in search of a problem.”

In Colorado, much of the GOP charge to install voter ID and citizenship laws is being led by Bob Balink, the clerk and recorder of the state’s most populous county, El Paso. Colorado’s Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman has also been on board with the idea.

In 2006, Balink published, courtesy of El Paso County taxpayers, a newsletter that contained a letter to constituents demanding to know, “Where’s the outrage?” and likening illegally voting to the “threats” of gay marriage and people trying to take the “Christmas” out of Christmas trees. 

This year, Balink hasn’t been making such rhetorical comparisons. But he is still among the chief proponents of requiring people to prove citizenship and provide photo IDs before voting. Last week, he testified to the legislative committee that an informal, unscientific poll he conducted in his office showed that 97 percent of the people who responded agreed with him.

And, to his hometown daily, Balink has indicated that, “while he would prefer the Colorado Legislature pass a law, he is willing to unilaterally enact the policy in El Paso County to spark a lawsuit that would put the issue in front of a judge.”

Balink’s rationalization recently prompted the president of the Colorado Springs branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the director of the watchdog group Citizens Project, to pen a critical – and pointed – response. Their letter was published in the Colorado Springs Independent and the Gazette – and redistributed widely.

Here it is:

Proof of Citizenship Would Threaten Voting Rights

Voters should be alarmed by El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink’s proposal that people registering to vote provide proof of citizenship. Although showing proof of citizenship might sound reasonable at first glance, such policies have only one effect: suppressing the constitutional voting rights of American citizens, especially the elderly and minorities and those with low incomes. Many people simply don’t have their birth certificate, which can be very difficult to obtain for people with limited resources.

Recent studies, such as those conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, have explored the questions of who has proof of citizenship and whether voter fraud by noncitizens is a problem that threatens election integrity in the United States.

The studies found that 7 percent – or more than 13 million Americans – do not have ready access to the documents that can definitively prove citizenship: a birth certificate, naturalization papers or a U.S. passport. Not surprisingly, the studies also found that those who most often lack proof of citizenship are poor, elderly or from racial and ethnic minority groups.

Furthermore, studies show that requiring proof of citizenship appears to do nothing to ensure election integrity while negatively impacting civic participation. In Arizona, for instance, the only state that currently requires proof of citizenship, 35 percent of new registrants in the most populous county were rejected in 2005, and 17 percent were rejected between January and September 2006. Most are presumed to be legal citizens who did not have the required documents.

We write on behalf of a coalition of local civic-minded organizations that believe the rights of so many legal citizens should not be sacrificed when there’s not one single documented case of a non-citizen attempting to register and vote in the state of Colorado – much less El Paso County.

The right to vote is a cornerstone of democracy. Our elected county clerk and recorder should be in the business of defending that right, not creating barriers for legal voters. The current system of verifying voter citizenship by way of sworn affidavit is working. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we ask Balink to shelve this discriminatory proposal.

Rosemary Harris
President, Colorado Springs Branch NAACP

Barb Ferrill Van Hoy
Executive Director, Citizens Project

Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at The Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at cdegette@coloradoconfidential.com

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Cara Degette

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