As if receiving their guidelines from party headquarters, two liberal columnists in as many days -- Cynthia Tucker and E. J. Dionne -- have published denunciations of bills currently under consideration in or recently approved by state legislatures requiring citizens to show photo I.D. cards as proof of their right to vote at a given polling place. In the United States, partisanship appears to determine perceptions of such legislation. Republicans regard them as necessary for the prevention of fraudulent voting. Democrats see them as efforts to suppress voter turnout. It should be self-evident that each position is based on circumstance rather than principle. For whatever reason, Democrats have many supporters who lack photo I.D. or would find acquiring it burdensome. Precisely because Democrats openly acknowledge that their party would suffer from such laws, Republicans push more aggressively for their enactment. But while the motivation of Republican legislators may be transparently partisan, they are probably more capable of defending their stance with a semblance of objectivity than Democrats are. That's because the Democrats, regardless of what you think of their policies and positions, really have no stronger argument against photo I.D. requirements than that they'd hurt Democratic chances at the polls specifically. By contrast, Republicans can argue objectively for the prevention of voter fraud -- and the Democratic protest that such fraud is rare or, in Dionne's words, "not a major problem," is no answer to the principle of the thing. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's position, established in a 2008 test of an Indiana law, is that requiring photo I.D. is not unduly burdensome as long as the I.D. card can be had for free. Charging for it would make the requirement tantamount to an unconstitutional poll tax. Against the claim that merely requiring people to get the I.D. is unduly burdensome, the Court ruled that such personal costs in time must be weighed against the benefit to all from ensuring fair elections.
While I don't doubt that Republicans pursue such legislation specifically to hurt the Democratic party, and some of their vote-suppression tactics may prove more vulnerable to constitutional scrutiny or redress. I'm just reluctant to see the special needs of the Democratic party enshrined in constitutional law. That is, I wouldn't want a photo-I.D. law struck down on the ground that it hurts the Democratic party, or any party, specifically. Instead, Republicans should shoulder the burden of impartiality by making sure that photo I.D. cards can be acquired as easily as possible, not just by lifelong residents of a state but by newcomers as well. If there's a limit to their willingness to facilitate I.D. acquisition, that's when you can accuse them of vote suppression. But the conditions of acquiring required I.D. are a subject separate from the requirement itself. There really ought to be zero-tolerance of voter fraud, and the presumption of it should not be treated like a slander. Both major parties have indulged in unethical voter-turnout manipulation throughout their history, from sending repeat voters from district to district to bribing the undecided on Election Day. Neither party is entitled to a presumption of innocence on any question influencing voter turnout, and neither is entitled to special consideration by the law or the courts. The two-party system itself, a construct of the nation's collective consciousness, arguably contributes as much to vote suppression by demoralizing citizens as any questionably-motivated legislation. When are we going to see E. J. Dionne or Cynthia Tucker protest against that?