Commentary Magazine


Topic: Election Assistance Commission

Voting Rights and Proof of Citizenship

Liberals are expressing outrage today about the court ruling that a federal agency is required to help Kansas and Arizona ensure that those registering to vote are citizens. The case decided in a U.S. district court in Wichita revolved around the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s decision to deny the requests from the two states that proof of citizenship be added to a national voter registration form when distributed in Kansas and Arizona. Judge Eric F. Melgren rightly ruled that the agency had no authority to tell the states their requests were invalid. He noted that the decision by the election commission to deny the states’ requests was “unlawful and in excess of its statutory authority.” This is a phrase that could well be applied to a great many other Obama administration decisions and executive orders.

In its ruling on Arizona’s controversial immigration law last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that only Congress could determine the rules for voting in federal elections. But significantly, it also determined that states had the right to demand proof of citizenship in state and local elections. The federal registration form only asks those registering to affirm that they are citizens. Kansas and Arizona want those seeking to vote to prove it and unless a higher court overrules Melgren, that principle has upheld.

While this case is being largely viewed as part of the ongoing debate about illegal immigration, it should also be understood as integral to the equally contentious question of whether states may require potential voters to produce photo ID. As such, liberals and Democrats are worried that the decision will impact this year’s election. But those arguing against the ruling need to answer the same question that voter ID opponents do their best to avoid: what is wrong, let alone illegal, about asking a voter to produce proof of their identity?

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Liberals are expressing outrage today about the court ruling that a federal agency is required to help Kansas and Arizona ensure that those registering to vote are citizens. The case decided in a U.S. district court in Wichita revolved around the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s decision to deny the requests from the two states that proof of citizenship be added to a national voter registration form when distributed in Kansas and Arizona. Judge Eric F. Melgren rightly ruled that the agency had no authority to tell the states their requests were invalid. He noted that the decision by the election commission to deny the states’ requests was “unlawful and in excess of its statutory authority.” This is a phrase that could well be applied to a great many other Obama administration decisions and executive orders.

In its ruling on Arizona’s controversial immigration law last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that only Congress could determine the rules for voting in federal elections. But significantly, it also determined that states had the right to demand proof of citizenship in state and local elections. The federal registration form only asks those registering to affirm that they are citizens. Kansas and Arizona want those seeking to vote to prove it and unless a higher court overrules Melgren, that principle has upheld.

While this case is being largely viewed as part of the ongoing debate about illegal immigration, it should also be understood as integral to the equally contentious question of whether states may require potential voters to produce photo ID. As such, liberals and Democrats are worried that the decision will impact this year’s election. But those arguing against the ruling need to answer the same question that voter ID opponents do their best to avoid: what is wrong, let alone illegal, about asking a voter to produce proof of their identity?

The answer from the left is twofold. On the one hand, they continue to assert that there is no such thing as voter fraud in the United States. On the other, they claim that requiring voter ID and now proof of citizenship disproportionately affects the poor, the elderly, and all those who might not have proper identification even though they are U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote.

Though widely repeated, the first claim is preposterous. Voter fraud is hard to detect (especially in districts where the legal authorities are affiliated with parties that hope to benefit from illegal votes). Assuming that the lack of prosecutions for such crimes is due to its nonexistence is a proposition that requires us to forget everything we know about American political history as well as human nature. Protecting the integrity of the vote is vital to the defense of democracy. Treating measures designed to ensure that only those who are registered or citizens are voting as political ploys rather than reasonable measures supported by the vast majority of Americans is absurd.

It is true that voter ID or proof of citizenship might inconvenience some legal voters. But states that have passed such laws also have provided citizens with means of obtaining alternatives to driver’s licenses or lost passports. The point is, anyone who is entitled to vote and wants to can almost always find a way to do so legally.

Voting should not be made onerous, but there is something slightly disingenuous about the arguments claiming that a requirement for a voter ID or proof of citizenship is a racist plot to deny the franchise to minority groups. Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans, including minorities, think there is nothing unreasonable about being asked to produce the same kind of ID that is required to purchase prescriptions, cigarettes, beer, perform the simplest bank transaction, or board an airplane when doing something that is arguably a lot more important, like voting.

There’s little doubt that most Americans are just as dubious about the idea that proof of citizenship is a minor detail that should be ignored by authorities in charge of voting. Whatever your opinion about immigration reform or the rights of illegals, if Democrats think they can rally public opinion around the notion that the government should not interfere with non-citizens attempting to vote, they are taking a stance that is as indefensible as it is politically unpopular. A state that is indifferent to non-citizens who commit fraud to vote in effect denies legal voters meaningful exercise of the franchise/right to vote.

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