Democrats need a new voting rights strategy. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg
Democrats need a new voting rights strategy. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

It's time for Democrats to re-think their strategy on the voting rights issue. Thus far they have been playing defense, and they have been losing badly.

Last week a federal judge sided with Arizona and Kansas in a ruling that will require all state residents to submit proof of citizenship before registering to vote. (Alabama and Georgia have adopted similar laws.) If the appeal fails -- and the Supreme Court’s language in a related case last year suggests it may -- Republican-dominated legislatures probably will adopt these laws in more states, just as they have passed laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls, a requirement the Supreme Court upheld in 2008. Thirty-two states now have voter ID requirements.

Republicans assert that these ID laws are necessary to prevent fraudulent and non-citizen voting, but partisan motives are also at work. Poor and minority voters, who lean Democratic, are more likely not to have identification. Various political parties, often driven by anti-immigrant sentiment, have been using registration requirements to discourage such voters from casting ballots for nearly 200 years. Given that the national leader of the voter ID movement, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is also a leading voice against immigration reform, it’s hard not to see parallels.

At the same time, it’s hard not to see the potential for mischief at the polls, given the estimated 25 million non-citizens living in the U.S. and the fact that voter rolls are riddled with errors. A 2012 report found that 24 million registrations were inaccurate or invalid, including the registration of 1.8 million dead people. That may be one reason large majorities of Americans -- polls show more than 70 percent -- support laws requiring voters to show photo identification.

While documented cases of illegal voting are rare, they’ve been confirmed often enough, as have instances of lax ballot security, to make the Democrats’ dismissal of the issue appear as self-serving as the Republicans’ harping on it. And Democrats do themselves no favors when they hold voting-rights rallies during which they applaud felons convicted of voter fraud, as happened last week in Ohio.

Democrats have already lost the voter ID battle and are losing the registration battle, too. Even repairing the provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last year would make up only a fraction of the ground they have lost. Voter ID laws are here for the foreseeable future, and if Democrats are serious about attacking their harmful effects, they ought to make peace with an old adversary: REAL ID. (Cue the screams of horror from liberals and libertarians alike.)

REAL IDs are state-issued identification cards that, like passports, require proof of citizenship or lawful immigration status. In 2005, Congress mandated their gradual introduction to improve homeland security. In addition to allowing businesses to verify the legal status of prospective employees, the cards can help voters demonstrate their citizenship and allow election officials to more easily confirm it.

Voters can establish citizenship without REAL ID, but its use ensures elections officials aren't arbiters of the validity of birth certificates (we have had enough birthers) while also providing a photo ID for voters to use at the polls.

Despite initial Democratic opposition, and now growing Republican opposition, at least 21 states are in compliance with REAL ID standards, and 17 more are required to implement them by October. Rather than lamenting this, Democrats and voting-rights supporters should work to speed implementation of REAL ID and get the cards, or some other form of valid ID, to more citizens.

They could push Congress to provide money to states to supply free REAL IDs to needy individuals. They could petition state legislatures for funding. They could raise private money for the effort. And they could incorporate ID applications into voter-registration drives.

Protesting ID laws isn’t working. The laws are spreading and getting stricter. Many voters need assistance getting IDs. Those concerned about voting rights should help them.

To contact the writer of this article: fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor of this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net