An Excess of Virtue?
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Posner Rethinks Voter I.D. Laws

By Jonathan B. Wight

We all want fair elections, and the potential for trouble-makers to vote in more than one location, or to vote while dead (as allegedly happened in JFK’s Presidential race in Chicago), is cause for concern.

But the allegations of such fraud don’t add up, according to Judge Richard Posner, perhaps one of the most outspoken intellectuals on the right. Posner issued a stunning dissent in the recent Court of Appeals case for Wisconsin’s voter I.D. law.  Posner wrote:

The author of this dissenting opinion has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about “scrounging” it up. Nor does he enjoy waiting in line at motor vehicle bureaus. There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.

The Appendix for the dissent shows just how daunting it is to try to prove your ability to vote without having the paperwork of a birth certificate that about 7 % of Americans do not have.  This is particularly true for women and for poor people, who move a lot and may not have kept good records.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the NY School of Law did a survey in 2006 that found that:

  • About 13 million Americans lack documentation of their citizenship.
  • People earning less than $25,000/year are twice as likely to lack documentation.
  • Only half of women who have proof of their births have birth certificates with their current legal names.

This is clearly a mess, and a lot of innocent people may be disenfranchised.  About 12% of American families move every year.  How many frazzled parents have good paperwork on births to hand to their children on their 18th birthday? 

I feel blessed that my place of birth was a hospital, and that the hospital has stayed in continuous operation for the last 60 years, and that I was recently able to get a pretty good photostat of my birth certificate.  Not everyone is this lucky.


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