The right to vote is supposed to be a fundamental right in a democracy like the United States. However, denying people the right to vote has been something of an American tradition. Women were, of course, denied the right to vote until 1920. In the late 1800s Jim Crow laws were passed by southern Democrats to systematically deny blacks their voting rights. The various tactics used in these laws also sometimes excluded poor whites from voting, but steps were often taken to “correct” that problem.
Recent times have seen a significant surge of laws that would seem to have an impact on voting. The overwhelming majority of these laws have been put forth by Republicans, but Democrats have also had a role to play. These laws are typically presented as measures that are needed to counter voting fraud, although many critics contend that the sort of fraud these measures are intended to counter is extremely rare. It has been estimated that the new measures “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” As such, there seems to be a real issue here.
One point of concern is the matter of motivation. It seems likely that that the poor, the young and African-Americans will be most affected by the new laws. Since these demographics tend to vote for Democrats, it might be suspected that these laws are an attempt to disenfranchise such voters, thus reducing the likelihood that Democrats will be elected. Those supporting the laws, as noted above, claim that they are motivated solely by their desire to prevent voter fraud. Presumably, the fact that people who tend to vote for Democrats will be people most impacted by the laws is purely a matter of coincidence. I am inclined to think that the Republicans are, in fact, intending to use such laws to their political advantage. That said, the morality of an action and its consequences can be assessed independently of motives and this seems worth doing.
As noted above, the main argument for the new laws is based on the idea that they will reduce voter fraud. While it is laudable to reduce such fraud, such incidents seem to be rather rare and there is also the obvious question of whether or not the harm prevented by these laws will outweigh the harm done by these laws. After all, if voting is a very important thing, then laws that make it less likely that legitimate voters will participate in the democratic process is a matter of significant concern. Given the rarity of such fraud and the likely impact of the laws, it would seem that such laws would create more harm than good, thus making them morally dubious (at best).
One of the most widespread changes is the requirement for voters to show photo identification. Previously, only two states had this requirement. Now 34 states have such laws in the works. This is a point of concern because a large number of voters lack the identification needed. For example, South Carolina is estimated to have over 200,000 voters (8% of the total) who lack such identification.
Proponents of the laws contend, as noted above, that this requirement is needed to prevent fraud. However, the sort of fraud identification would prevent seems rare or even non-existent, hence there is the obvious question of why there is such a compelling need to implement such laws when they would most likely reduce the number of people who vote. It might, of course, be countered that it is better that hundreds or thousands not vote than there be a single fraudulent vote cast. Of course, this can be countered that it is better for democracy that the risk of fraud be tolerated for the sake of allowing more people to exercise one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy.
It can also be contended that the requirement to show proper identification is not an onerous burden. After all, such identification is required to cash a check, to travel by air, and to operate a motor vehicle and in such cases is not considered asking too much to require identification. Also, some states plan to provide the identification people need in order to vote at no cost to the voters who need them. It can also be argued there is no compelling reason why anyone eligible to vote would be incapable of acquiring such identification with minimal effort. As such, the idea that such a requirement would wrongfully deny people the right to vote might seem absurd.
That said, given the horribly low voter turnouts, it is not unreasonable to think that there would be a significant number of voters who would simply not vote if even this additional minor obstacle were placed in their way. As such, there is some concern that this seemingly reasonable requirement would reduce the number of people voting. However, it could be countered that while voting is a right, people should be willing to take at least some effort to exercise that right. As such, someone who is unwilling to acquire an appropriate identification has been disenfranchised, but by himself or herself and hence has no one else to blame. Naturally, if the identification requirements were burdensome, then this would be another matter.
As a final point, we should always be on guard against attempts to rob people of their right to vote. History has shown that people are quite willing to engage in this sort of misdeed and there is no reason to believe that people will not do such things again.