Voting Rights

The ID Whose Time Has Come

Citing nonexistent ‘voter fraud,’ Republicans are rolling back the right to vote nationwide. But Obama could fight back before November by putting picture IDs on Social Security cards.

04.16.14 9:45 AM ET

In the middle of President Clinton’s speech at the LBJ summit in Austin, Texas, he departed from his prepared text to endorse an old idea gaining new currency—picture IDs on Social Security cards. In the 50 years since President Johnson’s signature achievement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, lawmakers have worked to extend the franchise, Clinton noted, but now a spate of state laws introduced after the 2012 election is scaling back the right to vote in a way that many Democrats see as discriminatory.

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling undermining the pre-clearance enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act opened the door for states to enact various restrictive measures. One gambit is to require photo identification, a reasonable-sounding provision that 34 states have now adopted. For people with a driver’s license or a passport, this is not a hardship. But for the poor, the elderly, and some minorities, who don’t drive and don’t travel abroad, securing the right kind of government ID is a challenge. Texas, for example, recognizes gun permits but not student IDs.

“There are millions of Americans without government-issued photo IDs, and an increasing number of states are trying to condition voting on a certain kind of government ID that 11 percent of Americans don’t have,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

That’s why civil rights icon and former ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young calls picture IDs on Social Security cards “an idea whose time has come.” Young chairs Why Tuesday? a group co-founded in 2005 by William Wachtel, a lawyer whose father was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer, and Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The group’s goal, to boost turnout and expand the franchise, is embodied in its name. Census surveys repeatedly find that holding elections on Tuesday is the principal impediment to people voting.

“In 1965, if we had thought of weekend voting, it would have been an easy addition for Lyndon Johnson,” Young says. But tradition dies hard, and a day picked back in the agrarian era is here to stay, with the battle shifting to extended voting hours typically favored by Democrats and increasingly opposed by Republicans. “They’re tightening the screen in a whole host of ways, not just voter IDs,” says Ornstein, who says he finds the picture ID requirements the least divisive of the restrictive laws being enacted. He points out that in Wisconsin, where same-day voting has been successful, they’re trying to take it away. In Ohio, the number of days for early voting has been reduced and Sunday voting—a time when black churches bus parishioners to the polls—ended. “The objectives here are pretty clear,” says Ornstein.

In populous Miami-Dade County, bathrooms will be closed in polling places on Election Day. Handicapped individuals wanted access to restrooms, and rather than provide them as required by law, election officials decided to shut off access to voters in an area that had long waits in 2012.

There is no shortage of problems to fix, and the concept of what seems like a national ID card raises hackles about privacy on the right and the left. Ornstein tries to calm critics by explaining the limited nature of the proposal. “This is not to give 300 million people a Social Security card with picture—that would be ridiculous and stupid and costly for no good reason—but to make it available to people who don’t have another ID. The numbers are relatively small, but they’re there, and they have to go a long way in some counties to get a government ID. This is one more way that is relatively convenient.”

At the LBJ summit last week, President Carter said that if he were president today, he would sign an executive order “in a New York minute” to authorize the Social Security administration to provide picture IDs. Each president was given a sample card with his picture on it. Clinton got two, one for him and one for Hillary. Obama’s card was relayed through top adviser Valerie Jarrett.

While Obama has spoken out forcefully against the various tactics to curtail voting being employed in key battleground states, the White House has not taken a position on putting photos on Social Security cards. Opponents say it would be a field day for hackers and identity thieves, but photos could be encrypted at a nominal cost, less than 9 cents a card, advocates say, and Social Security numbers have long appeared on Medicare cards with no apparent ill effects.

“If you’re 79, don’t drive a car, don’t have a passport, and you can go to one of 1,300 Social Security offices, get them to put your picture on your card. What’s terrible about that?” asks Wachtel. Young sees it as a “freedom card” that in addition to gaining the vote would liberate the poor, the elderly, and minorities from relying on check-cashing storefronts. A government-issued ID would give them access to banks.

With ID required for so much in modern life, exempting voters is a losing proposition. So why not adopt measures that make it easier to get proper ID? Both sides should be able to agree on that, and then the debate can turn to all the other things Republican-led states are doing to curtail voting. “We should not let people get away with this glib excuse that this is about voter fraud,” says Ornstein. “There is no voter fraud. What we have is voter suppression.”

With the midterms looming, pressure will mount on Obama to take this very limited step to get his voters to the polls. “Everyone can think of a reason why it won’t work,” says Young. “This is not as scandalous and creative as Lend Lease [under FDR]. When you have a great president with a national crisis, you do things that are rambunctious.”