On a Federal Voter ID Law, the Devil is in the Details

by Liz Avore

June 29, 2021

In proposing a compromise package for federal voting legislation, Senator Joe Manchin recently released a framework that includes two weeks of early voting, automatic voter registration, a ban on partisan gerrymandering, and a first-ever national voter ID law among its provisions. The framework did not lay these provisions out in detail, however – and when it comes to creating a new national voter ID law, the details do matter. 

States have functioned as living laboratories to experiment with what types of voter ID laws work for voters and election administrators. That’s why most states with voter ID laws on the books also have policies in place to ensure that election officials can still verify the identity of voters who are unable to show documentation at the polls. A new federal voter ID law would make it much more difficult to vote in states across the country if it strips states of their ability to offer these alternatives.

Therefore, if Congress drafts a federal voter ID law, it must take existing state law into consideration and allow:

  1. Voters to prove identity using a variety of forms of documentation; and
  2. Election officials to verify voter identity through other means when voters do not have documentation with them.

Here’s more about why. 

Voters and election officials need a range of acceptable documentation to prove identity

Senator Manchin’s memo specifically noted that utility bills would be an acceptable form of documentation for his proposed national voter ID law – and for good reason. Already, a number of states including Missouri, Ohio, North Dakota, Alaska, Virginia, West Virginia, and Colorado all verify voter identity at the polls using documents as diverse as utility bills, bank statements, and paychecks. 

In fact, under current federal law, voters who do not submit documentation or provide an ID number (either a driver’s license number or the last four digits of the social security number) when they register to vote must verify their identity when they vote in their first federal election. 

That same federal law states they can do so using a wide range of documentation that matches their name with their address, including utility bills, bank statements, vehicle registration, public housing ID, and tuition statements. 

In short, accepting a wide range of documentation for voter ID is standard practice, and election administrators already have significant experience doing so. If Congress opts to extend the law to require that all voters verify their identity at the polls each time they vote, existing federal and state laws can serve as helpful models for the type of documentation that balances election integrity with voter liberty. 

Election officials need flexibility to verify a voter’s identity without documentation

Most states with voter ID laws also have policies in place to ensure election officials can verify the identity of voters without ID through other, time-tested means. 

For example, if a voter shows up at the polls without necessary ID in Louisiana or Ohio, election officials will verify their identity using other information, such as their date of birth, mother’s maiden name, or last four digits of their social security number. In Florida, Missouri, and West Virginia, election officials will match the voter’s signature with one on file if the voter is unable to show ID. And Iowa and West Virginia will count a ballot if another registered voter verifies the person’s identity. In a number of states, voters can cast a regular ballot if they sign a legally binding affidavit attesting to their identity. 

By asking for voter ID at the polls, but allowing for alternative verification when absolutely necessary, states are able to efficiently and effectively ensure that every person who casts a ballot is eligible to do so, without unnecessarily turning away registered voters. A federal voter ID law should not override the ability of states to offer these alternative verification methods. If it did so, it would create chaos by overturning the law in the vast majority of states and impose new burdens on voters and election officials alike.

Note on mail voting: Robust and distinct procedures are already in place to verify mail voters.

States already have robust procedures in place to assure the verification of mail ballots. Most states verify the identity of mail ballot voter via a signature match, while others verify voter identity using basic information, such as date of birth and address. Some states require that voters provide an ID number – such as a driver’s license number, state ID number, or the last four digits of a social security number – in order to receive or cast a mail ballot. 

This session, however, multiple states introduced legislation that would require voters to submit a copy of a voter ID with their mail ballot. Notably, none of these provisions became law, and it’s critical the federal government does not impose this mandate on voters now. 

Requiring a copy of ID to vote by mail is exceedingly rare – and for good reason. Arkansas is the only state that requires voters to submit a physical copy of an ID when returning their absentee ballot – and when Arkansas first instituted this requirement, the absentee ballot rejection rate doubled. [1] 

Requiring voters to provide a copy of an ID with their mail ballot creates an unnecessary and costly burden for voters, especially rural, low income, and elderly voters who rely on mail voting and may not have access to photocopiers, scanners, or printers, all while adding no value from an election security standpoint. It also presents privacy concerns for voters who do not want a copy of their ID going through the mail every time they vote.

[1] In Arkansas the absentee ballot rejection rate increased 3 percent in 2012 to 5.9% in 2016. The photo ID law took effect in 2014.