Voter fraud has a history of plaguing elections, inspiring a growing number of states to enact voter identification laws in recent years. The issue was the focus of a debate Thursday at the National Press Club between Heritage senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky and Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

Proponents of voter ID laws believe they reduce fraud and improve the integrity of elections. Opponents argue these laws decrease voter turnout and disenfranchise minority voters.

“One of the key principles of any fair election is making sure that the person who casts the vote is legally eligible to do so, and the fairest way to do that is by making sure that individuals authenticate their citizenship when they register to vote, authenticate their identity when they appear at the polling places,” said von Spakovsky. “Those kinds of requirements also increase public confidence in our election process.”

In many cases, voter ID laws were put in place after incidents of fraudulent ballots signed by the deceased, illegal aliens, and people who had already cast a vote in another state.

“[Voter ID laws] can also prevent people from voting under fictitious voter registration names or voting in the names of other individuals like people who are dead,” said von Spakovsky. “We know this because of a study done last week that there are almost 2 million people who are deceased who were still in voter registration rolls. It can prevent double voting by people who are registered in more than one state. And also, frankly, it can prevent illegal aliens from registering and voting.”

>> Read von Spakovsky’s report, “The Unpersuasive Case Against Voter Identification

Murphy’s response was to discredit the fraud and focus on minority disenfranchisement.

“There is much more evidence that citizens are disenfranchised by these measures than there is evidence of individual voter fraud,” she said. “Hans is quick to point out that some Democrats have supported photo ID legislation, but the vast majority of state legislatures that are enacting photo ID laws and other barriers to voting are Republican-controlled legislators who may fear that low-income people, students, the elderly, the disabled, and racial minorities are taking aim at their political power.”

In her view, the rise in voter ID laws is purely political.

“To regain or strengthen an electoral advantage, largely Republicans, and in some small cases Democrats, are hoisting upon us the largely baseless and abstract allegations of voter fraud as the rationale for a whole series of voter suppression laws,” she said.

In response, von Spakovsky quoted Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ statement from the Indiana voter ID case.

“Examples of such fraud have been documented throughout this nation’s history,” Stevens’ wrote. “Not only is risk of voter fraud real, but it could affect the outcome of a close election.” According to von Spakovsky, the idea that this will prevent individuals from voting, the claim that it is intended to suppress the vote, particularly of minorities, Democrats, and the elderly, has been disproved in the courtroom and disproven in polling place.

Murphy also cited a well-worn argument from voter ID opponents that the laws decrease turnout because of the cost to get identification.

“Voter ID laws deny the right to thousands of citizen voters who do not have or cannot obtain the limited forms of identification that states accept for voting,” Murphy said. “Many of these Americans cannot afford to pay for the required documents needed to secure a government issued photo ID.”

Proponents of voter ID laws note that states provide this for free. Plus, von Spakovsky was quick to discredit the argument by explaining that voter turnout actually increased after the Georgia and Indiana laws were put in place. In 2008, the turnout of Democratic voters increased more than 6 percentage points in Georgia over the 2004 election when there was no photo ID law in effect, and it increased more than 8 percentage points in Indiana.

>> Read von Spakovsky’s report, “Voter Photo Identification: Protecting the Security of Elections

A case brought by the ACLU in Georgia against its ID law was dismissed by a federal judge because the ACLU could not produce any witnesses who would be unable to vote because of the ID requirement.

“Each deposition of a witness that was brought forth by the ACLU, it turned out in the questioning each of these individuals could have easily gotten a photo ID. They just didn’t bother to do it before the election,” he said.

Just as individuals must present identification to work in the United States, they should also present it to vote, von Spakovsky said.

“The right to work in the U.S. is a fundamental right just like the right to vote,” he noted. “Under the federal law, if you want to get a job you have to authenticate your identity and authenticate your citizenship or your work visa to be able to work as a U.S. citizen. That is no different than what states want to do in the voting context.”