I have always voted by absentee ballot so I never realized you don't have to show an ID when you show up to vote. For some reason, I thought I remembered when I went with my mom as a child that she showed her ID and was crossed off a list of registered voters for her precinct. Please explain the significance of voter ID.Okay - let me subdivide and tackle this as a series of subquestions.
(1) What are voter identification laws?
Voter identification laws are laws which require registered voters to demonstrate, in some way, shape, or form that they are, in fact, who they affirm themselves to be. They come in three major varieties - no-photo, photo-requested, and photo-required. No-photo voter identification laws require that voters come with some documentation that affirms that they are who they say they are - typically a government document or a contractual statement (such as a bill) that includes their address. Photo-requested voter identity laws allow voters to use non-photo IDs if needs be, but favor the use of photographic IDs. Photo-required voter identity laws require potential voters to show a photo ID at the time of their arrival at the the voting - if voters do not have a photo identification with them they are given a provisional ballot which will only be counted if and when they submit such ID for confirmation at an appropriate location within a few days.
(2) How are voter identification laws justified?
Typically those who are proponents of voter identification laws favor them as a way of ending certain types of voter fraud - notably persons who pose as registered voters but who are, in fact, not those persons. This includes of course "cemetary" voting in which registered voters whose names have not been purged from the voting lists but who are deceased have votes cast in their names.
(3) Why do some groups and individuals oppose voter identification laws?
There are two major reasons opposition for these laws exists. First, this type of voter fraud is considered a non-issue in modern elections as voter lists are more carefully monitored. When voter fraud occurs it is far more likely to be behind the ballot box (in the form of "lost votes" or conscious disenfranchisement practices).
The second reason is that these laws potentially constitute a form of disenfranchisement. You see, the United States has a long history of institutional voter disenfranchisement, both explicitly (in the form of laws which restricted citizens' right to vote due to property-requirements, race, gender, and so forth), and implicitly through laws which were intended to guarantee that white upper- and middle-class citizens were able to access the vote at a higher frequency than poor white and minority voters. Consider the literacy rules that many Southern states had for voting in the 19th and 20th Centuries - the intention was to decrease the voting rate of African-Americans since African-Americans were poorer, less likely to have attended institutions of learning, and were often former slaves or their children or grandchildren, all of which correlated with higher rates illiteracy. Literacy rules were easy to justify - literacy implies the ability to self-educate about political and economic issues. But their intent was clearly different and, of course, illiteracy does not imply a human adult is politically ignorant or that his or her political or economic interests or beliefs are invalid.
Eventually, however, the American court system overturned such rules in the mid-20th Century based upon a stricter reading of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. I'll quote it for you, in case you've forgotten the whole text.
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
There is a lot in there that isn't directly relevant to this discussion, but the highlighted part, known as the Equal Protection Clause, is. You see, any law which functions to deprive any citizen of their political rights, or to favor particular groups of citizens over other groups of citizens, is hereby declared unconstitutional. Cut and dried, it would seem, but remember there was nearly a century lag between the adoption of the Old 14th and its proper enactment. But everything is great forever now, right?
Well, it is argued by many that the same phenomenon is in action with the current voter identification laws. If you are a middle- or upper-class voter in the United States you likely have a higher education, you likely are at least basically aware of trends in the news through internet, television, or written material (a sign that you have free time and the money to afford these newservices), and you're far more likely to own, lease, or rent an automobile - meaning that you probably keep a photo ID with you at all times. If you are poor, lack a formal education, are an immigrant citizen who still gets most of their news from non-English sources, or live in urban areas that have good or excellent mass transit infrastructure you are far less likely to have a photo identification, much less be aware that you are required to bring one to the polling place. Indeed, if you have these characteristics you are also far less likely to be able to get to a second location (often far from your home) within a period of a few days during business hours - particularly in the case of the working poor who may have already taken off from work to exercise their vote in the first place. The effect then, intended or unintended, is to disenfranchise at a much higher rate urban, poor, ethnic-minority, and immigrant populations which, in most constituencies will favor one party over another. This is problematic in and of itself, since functionally it means these are poll taxes, but it is particularly contentious given how close the upcoming presidential race is likely to be.
(4) What is the legal standing of voter identification laws?
On this one I will defer to the National Conference of State Legislatures which summarizes the current laws on the table and their legal status as of today for every state in the Union - very comprehensive and, I might add, worth a look-see to determine what ID you may, or may not, need to bring to the polls on Tuesday.