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Democrats Are Now Open To New Voter ID Rules. It Probably Won't Win Over The GOP

A Utah poll worker checks a voter ID during the 2016 presidential election. Eleven states have strict voter ID laws, while 24 have less stringent laws for an ID to vote. Democrats have begun to lower their resistance to the issue.
George Frey
Getty Images
A Utah poll worker checks a voter ID during the 2016 presidential election. Eleven states have strict voter ID laws, while 24 have less stringent laws for an ID to vote. Democrats have begun to lower their resistance to the issue.

As Democrats maneuver to pass voting rights legislation through Congress, some high-profile members of the party have expressed an openness to one GOP-backed policy they have long opposed: voter ID requirements.

"We do not oppose voter ID," Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, told NPR this month. "Every one of us who registered to vote gets a voter registration card. And you present that card every time you go to vote. That's a voter ID."

The shift comes 13 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if states wanted to require voters to show a photo ID to vote, they could.

Eleven states, many with state legislatures mostly controlled by the GOP, have strict voter ID laws, while an additional 24 have less stringent laws requesting an ID to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats fought those requirements tooth and nail, usually with limited results.

While most Americans do have the sort of government-issued IDs that the strictest laws call for, the millions of Americans who don't are more likely to be eligible voters from marginalized groups.

In Georgia, where a new law includes an ID requirement for vote-by-mail ballots that didn't exist before, more than half of the voters who may be affected are Black, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

There's also no evidence of widespread election fraud that would require stricter security measures to be put in place.

Between the impact on nonwhite voters and the absence of widespread voter fraud, Democrats have not been shy about describing voter ID laws as racist and disenfranchising.

"We need to take our case directly to the American people and point out what this is all about," then-Vice President Joe Biden said in 2014. "It's an attempt to repress minority voting masquerading as an attempt to end corruption."

But after a decade of taking their case directly to the American people, it appears Democrats may be softening that stance because the American people don't seem to have budged.

The partisan divide on IDs is over what kind they are

One reason for the change in tone about voter ID is the effort to craft legislation that could win approval from all 50 Senate Democrats, including key moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He has appeared open to ID requirements as long as things such as student IDs and utility bills are accepted.

But so far, House Democrats have not included language mandating voter ID in either of the two significant voting bills it has passed. In fact, the For the People Act, which passed the House in a party-line vote in March, reduces voter ID requirements.

The partisan divide on IDs now appears to be over what type of IDs are acceptable. Republicans generally want a smaller range of government-issued IDs, while Democrats generally want less restrictive ID requirements.

"I'm just not convinced the Democrats are even serious about debating any of the voter ID issues that many Republicans would support," said Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee.

Most Americans want people to show IDs to vote

The fight on voter ID continues to be an uphill battle for Democrats since most Americans have and continue to support ID measures for voting.

A recent Monmouth University poll found 80% of Americans think people should have to show photo IDs to vote.

"Regardless of how you poll, voters like a requirement for photo ID," said Charles Stewart, who leads the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. "I mean it's kind of a no-brainer for a large swath of the American public ... including most Democrats."

The Monmouth poll found that 56% of people who identified as liberal and 84% of nonwhite voters favored photo ID requirements.

But advocates still feel it's a case where the people responding in such polls are those who probably already have government ID cards such as driver's licenses in their wallets.

"I can't help but wonder if Americans knew more about the scale and the impact of voter ID laws, we would see those poll numbers change," said Lauren Kunis, executive director of VoteRiders, a nonprofit aimed at helping people get IDs. "My strong feeling is that the answer would be yes."

MIT's Stewart, however, disagrees.

As someone who doesn't think there should be more barriers for voting, Stewart personally opposes the laws.

But as someone who has polled Americans about photo ID laws for years, he's also come to the conclusion that he's in the minority. Public support for ID laws hasn't waned over the past decade, even as Democrats have hammered at them.

"In most of America, when you put your kids in school, you've got to vaccinate them and you got to show a birth certificate," Stewart said. "So I think the rank-and-file Americans have an experience of, there are times I have to prove myself and I have to do these really hard things, and if somebody can't do those things, then that's just too bad."

Democrats may be adjusting to that political reality as well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.