#agradeeoar #2, Raul Mourão, 2013. Courtesy of Raul Mourão and Galeria Nara Roesler. © Galeria Nara Roesler.

The Law of the Instrument

More than 200 letters to the editor, op-eds, and editorials from newspapers across the US reveal a country divided on who should be allowed to vote.

If you were to make a bingo card of the words and phrases that appear most frequently in newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor about voter ID laws, your squares would include: “I’m not racist! You’re racist!” “Gerrymandering,” “But Fraud!” “Immigrants,” “You’re Lazy!” “Poll Tax,” and—because this is America—“A Planeload of Bulgarians.”

Let’s begin with Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, where Christian Schneider connects his thoughts on the topic to the award-winning children’s book, Duck for President: “Duck calls a farm-wide election and sets three rules to register to vote: The animals must live on the farm, show valid identification, and meet a height requirement. (The mice protested the minimum height rule, so it was crossed off the list.)”

While farm animal allegories can quickly get gloomy, this one doesn’t, and Schneider says “it’s clear” that the author of the book “figured having to prove who one is and where one lives in order to vote wasn’t particularly controversial. In fact, showing an ID is so easy, even ducks can do it.”

I could point out the ducks in question concede one of the requirements isn’t fair, and Duck for President provides no explanation for the kind of identification a pig needs to prove it is, in fact, a pig. But it doesn’t really matter, because the book is about a duck. Only 50 years ago, Rev. George Lee, Lamar Smith, Herbert Lee, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and countless others were murdered because they dared to do something not so easy: Urge African Americans to register to vote. Although in Schneider’s defense, it is harder to find an allegorical children’s book about lynch mobs.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s easy or not, says Abdul-Hakim Shabazz in the Indianapolis Recorder, who suggests it’s not voter ID keeping people from the polls but the candidates running for office and their positions on the issues. Depending on where you live, that might be true, although Shabazz still wants you to: “Show your ID and shut up.”

Many letter-to-the-editor writers agree, like Deirdre Mueller in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Is it too hard for people to take a bus to vote? I think we are a country of wimps.”

In a letter to the Indianapolis Star, Tim White writes about how easy it is to get a ride to the DMV: “If you want groceries or living supplies and can’t drive, someone must be helping you or you wouldn’t be surviving … The next time someone helps you … ask them to drop by the license branch so you can get an ID.”

Floyd Benjamin writes to The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, that he has had it up to here with your whining: “The left-wing dictator wannabes would like to see the voter ID law abolished so that people like President Barack Obama can make this a socialist economy. They say that the poor and minorities are being discriminated against because they do not have two sources of identification. Why not? It’s a lot easier than you think.”

Exactly. What’s not simple about Texas’s voter ID law, which allows you to use your out-of-state driver’s license to register for a concealed handgun permit, which is then an approved form of ID to vote, yet you can’t use that same driver’s license to vote?

And speaking of licenses, Craig Thomas has one last question for the Tennessean: “Why require a vehicle operator to carry a license with one’s photo on it?” After all, he says, if you’re upset about the suppression of the right to vote, why aren’t you hollering about “driver suppression?”

Nearly every letter writer advocating for photo ID explains to readers the many things you can’t do without one: Cash a check; pay your cable bill; get a credit card or library card; board an airplane; receive social security, food stamps, or disability benefits; purchase cigarettes or guns or a beer at Fenway Park; enroll your children in school; or apply for a loan. The problem with this list, of course, is not only do you not need an ID to accomplish some of these activities, but they’re false equivalencies. You may or may not have the privilege of sipping on a Wachusett’s Green Monsta IPA while singing “Sweet Caroline,” but don’t compare it to what Thomas Jefferson called “the ark of our safety,” our right to vote.

Even if you don’t include the fact that some people need legal aid to help access these documents, a free ID costs, on average, $75 to $175.

Ready to cross “I’m not racist! You’re racist!” off our voter ID bingo card? Let’s start with Peter Muehleis, who exclaims to the Sheboygan Press: “According to any number of Democrat leaders … if you’re for voter ID laws you must be a racist. If that’s so, consider me guilty!” No problem Peter! Especially since he continues: “Jews are typically a reliable Democratic voting bloc. Have you heard anyone claim voter ID laws would prevent Jews from voting? Evidently the feeling on the left is, Jews are smart enough to figure out how the process works.”

Similarly, Mark Poirier writes to SeacoastOnline: “At the end of the day, the race baiters who scream racism when we ask to protect the validity of the electoral process need to be challenged … Further I would submit that those who make the foolish assumption that minorities are incapable of obtaining at least one of the many forms of identification acceptable to such an activity are the one’s displaying racism.” And in a letter to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Paul Cole wonders why “so many people … have such a low opinion of minorities that they don’t believe that [they] can or will obtain voter IDs?”

The notion that voter ID laws harm lower-income minority voters might reek of paternalism, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are absolutely the intended subjects of these “reforms.” In a 2013 study in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien found that in states where “African Americans and poor people vote more frequently and there are larger numbers of non-citizens, restrictive-access legislation is more likely to be proposed.” And a 2014 report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office revealed that newly enacted voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee prevented more blacks from voting than whites, and multiple studies have shown that African Americans and Hispanic Americans are less likely to have driver’s licenses.

Writing to The Monitor in McAllen, Roque Rosales may feel safe declaring “No election laws have been intended to stop voter rights other than Jim Crow laws,” but just because we’re no longer shooting people who register to vote, and we no longer forbid African Americans from voting in primaries, doesn’t mean we’re not still utilizing some of the same discriminatory tactics. In The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tennessee, letter writer J.W. Gold calls voter ID requirements, gerrymandered districts, and the reduction of early voting hours “the same clown with a different face” as the “poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright discrimination” of the 19th and 20th centuries.

But is making people pay to vote really that bad? In a letter to Wisconsin’s Post Crescent, Dean Einspahr proposes what he calls “a drastic but fairly simple solution” to the controversy: You can’t vote unless you pay a “reasonable amount of income tax.” He thinks it’ll help raise revenue and elect representatives who will cut spending. It’s a jaunty suggestion in the Year of Our Lord, 2014, which also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the amendment to the US Constitution that outlawed poll taxes in federal elections.

Danton McDiffett disagrees in a letter to the Salina Journal: “If a photo ID is required to participate in our democracy, and that ID costs $22, how is that not an illegal poll tax?” He asks his opponents if they have “seen people putting items back at the dollar store when their change won’t cover what’s in their cart,” and declares: “For most of us, that $22 cost is not too much, but if it prevents even one person from exercising his or her right to vote, then it is too expensive.”

Patricia Oliver writes to Louisville’s Courier-Journal with an outside-the-box solution: “Voter apathy … is so deplorable that California is considering paying voters to vote! American people, I believe that a Poll Tax should be reinstated: Each American should be charged $10 to be allowed to vote. Then the apathy would fly away.”


In response to the certification of the amendment to the US Constitution outlawing the poll tax, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed: “There can be no one too poor to vote.” Which seems to have been translated by many in our country as: “How can you possibly be too poor to vote?”

The “test” of whether a voter ID law passes judicial muster has focused mostly on whether a state provides access to free IDs. If so, the law has gets a thumbs up from the Supreme Court. One of many problems with this ruling is that “free” isn’t always “free.”

In his article, “The High Cost of ‘Free’ Photo Identification Cards,” Harvard’s Richard Sobel breaks down what it costs voters in Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina to obtain a free ID. There are the direct fees for requesting copies of birth certificates and marriage licenses, plus charges for taking public transportation to obtain these documents (these people don’t have driver’s licenses, remember). Add to that the indirect cost of the time it takes to wait in these offices (lest you worry, he used the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour). Even if you don’t include the fact that some people need legal aid to help access these documents, a free ID costs, on average, $75 to $175. Is it any wonder, then, that of the reported 600,000 Texans who don’t have acceptable ID to vote, only around 300 have exercised their right to a “free” election certificate?

Between 2000 and 2014, there were 31 documented cases of voter fraud by impersonation, of the “more than 1 billion ballots [that] were cast in that period.”

Writing to The Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana, Jenny Krueger isn’t worried about lack of access to the polls—she’s worried about too much access: “The risk for corruption in the voting process is greater than any risk discouragement to the vote.” She adds, “It should not be difficult to acquire some sort of identification.” And she’s not wrong. It should not be hard to get identification, yet for many it is. Not only because of the fees, but because, for instance, in Texas 81 of 254 counties don’t have DMV offices. Even if you live in a much smaller state, like Wisconsin, and you do have an office you could visit, it may only be open two days a week.

Wayne Daniel shares some good news with South Carolina’s Greenville News: “Congress recently approved $50 million in a bill to support fair elections, fight corruption, and enhance civil society.” He then pauses dramatically before he makes his point: “Let me be clear, this is for the Ukraine not the United States,” and he goes on to mention the “cute little tricks,” politicians use to make voting an arduous process for many: “gerrymandering, cutting early voting, and seven-hour waiting lines.”

Writing for Utah’s Standard Examiner, Jack Allen laments that “The election of the Republican-controlled legislatures made it possible to enact changes to state voting laws that could reinforce Republican control of the legislatures for years to come … The gerrymandering that took place was an important prerequisite to allow these changes.” His list of ways the right to vote has been suppressed closely resembles Wayne Daniel’s, including “aggressive purging of registered voter rolls, use of caging lists to challenge and eliminate voters … and disinformation spread by some organizations to keep voters away from the polls.”

That disinformation may be reflected in a letter from Carl Powell, who writes to the Battle Creek Enquirer: “Illegal immigrants are among the fraudulent voters in the US. The political party that profits the most from these fraudulent practices is intensely and passionately against voter ID. This is the Democratic Party.” And in a letter to NewsTimes in Danbury, Conn., Richard Zeitler is pretty sure that “If our system of government had any control over who was permitted to vote in the last election, Barack Obama wouldn’t be president. It’s pretty obvious by now that Obama wants to give amnesty to illegal immigrants so they ultimately vote Democratic.”

Unfortunately—I think?—for Powell and Zeitler, illegal immigrants really aren’t the problem, because there’s really no problem with in-person voting fraud. A study by Loyola University law professor Justin Levitt found that between 2000 and 2014, there were 31 documented cases of voter fraud by impersonation, of the “more than 1 billion ballots [that] were cast in that period.” But the threat of disinformation is real. Some of it is by honest accident, like when the Alameda County Registrar of Voters sent out mail-in ballots with the wrong election date.

That’s a less nefarious story than what happened in the Tar Heel State. After receiving more than 2,000 complaints, the North Carolina State Board of Elections is investigating conservative Americans for Prosperity, which sent voter registration cards to residents with “incorrect information on the registration deadline, where to send voter registration applications, and where to get answers to questions about registration.”

And then there’s a particularly disturbing situation in Dearborn, Mich., where hundreds of Arab Americans either didn’t receive their absentee ballots during the primary election, or their requests for ballots were improperly handled and not processed by city officials, leading local civil rights groups to call for federal monitoring of this November’s elections.

In an op-ed for Utah’s Deseret News, Jay Evensen calmly says he “never bought the scare stories about what happens when poll workers aren’t required to ask for ID.” But he does have concerns about absentee ballots: “If we’re becoming a nation of mail-in voters, we probably should stop and think about the consequences.” He points out, logically, that not only are absentee ballots the best bet for those looking to illegally sway elections, but also that election workers, either from honest mistakes or for other reasons, don’t handle the ballots correctly. “Beyond fraud is the worry that humans, as is well-known, mess up. In Utah, 0.2 percent of ballots were rejected … that’s not a lot, but in a nation this size it adds up, and it means some people didn’t vote when they thought they did.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections is good “practice” for citizenship.

I feel like we’ve wandered away from the bingo board. But Gale Morganroth, writing to the Hartford Courant, can surely lead us back—she thinks providing voter ID is “a part of [her] duty as a citizen … To allow noncitizens to vote is an insult to all those who have struggled to become citizens.”

Officials in Kansas and Arizona agree, and both states now require voters to prove their American citizenship.

According to a staff editorial in the Lawrence World Journal, in 2013 Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach held 18,000 voter registrations “in suspense,” a dramatic phrase used to describe registered voters who hadn’t proved they weren’t from wherever. As of February 2014, he had approved 7,700 of those, but the list again grew to more than 18,000 in June. The editorial mentions Kobach “acknowledged that 80 percent of the registrations that are in suspense were filed at driver’s licenses offices across the state.” To defend his actions, Kobach says those people “are mostly causal registrants, many of whom do not intend to vote.” How he can know that, no one knows. Especially since Kansas’s gubernatorial and senatorial races have been both wild and wildly close in this solidly red state. While the editorial ends with a pointed suggestion—“Perhaps [Kobach’s] time would be better spent trying to get more people off the ‘in suspense’ list rather than fighting to put more people on it”—Michael Smith takes a different tone in an op-ed at the Emporia Gazette: “The real fraud here is Kobach and his allies’ trumped-up claims of fraud, used to justify policies suppressing legitimate votes.”

Kobach has at least one Kansan in his corner, though. Writing to the Hutchinson News, Larry Popovich has “a simple question” for those “frothing at the mouth over voter ID requirements: If I flew a planeload of Bulgarian citizens into Kansas on Election Day, and none of them had any identification, would you allow them to vote?”

It’s pretty fun to imagine Popovich’s reaction to the ballot question asked of Burlington, Vt., residents this November: “Shall the Vermont Constitution be amended to give residents of Vermont who are not currently citizens of the United States of America the right to vote in municipal and school elections?” This isn’t hugely controversial. The Supreme Court has ruled that allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections is good “practice” for citizenship, and Vermont has an impressive record of expanding access to voting, like allowing people who are incarcerated to cast their ballots.

The state’s easterly neighbors are dealing with a different side of the same coin. In the Concord Monitor, an editorial signed by members of local progressive groups criticizes New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner’s suggestion that “only citizens who meet the legal definition of ‘resident’ under state law should be able to vote.” They explain that Gardner is worried about “drive-by” voter fraud, that thing that happens when you go leaf peeping along the Kancamagus Scenic Highway and figure you’ll cast a ballot at the next elementary school you pass—instead of voting where you live. A 2012 law Gardner supported would have changed the state constitution so only residents who have plans to stay “for the indefinite future” would be eligible to vote. According to the editorial, those disenfranchised by the law would have included students, doctors completing residencies, and anyone who had plans to retire to a warmer climate at some point, ever. The courts threw out the law, and yet, miraculously, there has been no documented evidence of “drive-by” voting in the years since.


According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 18 percent of Americans 65 years of age and over don’t have valid photo identification. Some states, like Mississippi, make exceptions for older voters whose licenses are expired.

John Reading writes to the Pensacola News Journal: “Hardly anyone down here is from Florida! We came from every state in the Union. Some folks never had a birth certificate. A midwife delivered them and wrote their name in a Bible.”

It takes about one minute of internet searching to find instances of elderly voters jumping through numerous hoops to prove they’re legit.

In Shawnee, Kansas, 92-year old Evelyn Howard realized her voter status was in jeopardy. Delivered by a midwife in 1922, she never had a birth certificate. With the help of her family, she recovered the bible (which had recently been auctioned off) in which her birth was recorded and found census records proving she lived in Missouri when she was 18. With those documents and a letter to the state board of elections, she was finally allowed to register to vote.

For every happy story like Ms. Howard’s, there’s one like the 93-year old veteran who showed up to vote in Houston last week and was turned away at the polls because he thought he could use his expired driver’s license. If only he didn’t live in Texas.

Hadley Mills writes to the Arizona Republic: “If the potential legitimate voter can’t be bothered to acquire the proper ID, then perhaps he or she shouldn’t be voting in the first place.” And in a letter to Lafayette’s The Advertiser, Frank Flynn says he read a Reuters report indicating “those lacking proper ID were less likely to vote anyway.” There’s a kind of circular logic at work there that should probably earn us some sort of square on the bingo board.

From one state to the next, it’s hard to predict what kinds of hassles or conveniences—they do happen, from time to time—voters will face.

Alabama recently changed its registration deadline to 14 days before the election, instead of 10. Montgomery Advertiser columnist Josh Moore calls that move, and others, just “another Republican fairytale.” He goes on to make a list of characters that might star in the fable, like Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” and the “Vote Stealer,” and even suggests a possible plot twist: “Obama: Straight Out of Kenya.” Alas, he says, “It might be too far-fetched for a fairytale … Unfortunately, this is the sad reality of today’s GOP.”

Next door, Georgia has allowed voting on Sundays, a movement some are calling “souls to the polls.” Here’s how it works: You go to church and since you’re already there, you might as well cast your ballot. If it sounds too good to be true, you’re probably Bruce McCartney, who writes to Bryan County News: “Oh yeah, and there’s that other thing—one of those basic laws that was the foundation of our Republic: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. What say you, pastors, ministers, deacons, and congregants?”

Even if everything seems to be working pretty smoothly in your state, mistakes sometimes happen. George Keller, a chief judge in his precinct in Asheville, NC, writes to the Citizen-Times that “Some of us who worked in the polls [for the primary elections in May] noticed that the information sheet regarding voter ID didn’t include the sentence from the new law that says ‘any voter having attained the age of 70 years at the time of presentation at the voting place shall be permitted to present an expired form [of ID].”

After reading more than 200 letters to the editor, op-eds, and editorials about voting laws, I’ve concluded that the prospect of fraudulent in-person voting is less of a problem than our nation’s atrophied empathy.


So many of us refuse to use our imaginations and see outside ourselves or beyond the bubble of privilege that allows us to take something as “simple” as a photo ID for granted.

Jess Stoner is the author of I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. She lives in Colorado and writes about clemency at archiveofpleas.org. More by Jess Stoner