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October 22, 2012

Company at 30,000 feet: Plane travel and the voter ID controversy

Levitt2.jpgBy Associate Professor Justin Levitt

Legal fights over new restrictions on voters are all over the news these days, with fights over "voter ID" rules often front and center. The fight is not over whether voters should show that they are who they say they are -- every state has some method for that. Instead, the current fights are over a set of restrictive rules that newly limit the ways voters may offer that proof. In 2011 or 2012, several states passed laws prohibiting eligible voters from casting valid ballots at the polling place if they do not have particular government-issued photo identification cards; most have been blocked, at least temporarily, by the courts, and will not be in effect for the coming election.

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I've been fighting the most restrictive laws since 2005, as unnecessary regulations whose "cure" is worse many times worse than the "disease" of voter fraud they ostensibly confront. Most eligible citizens have the right kind of government-issued photo ID. But reliable statistics show that many of us -- between 1.2% and 16%, depending on the particular numerator and denominator -- don't. And voting isn't just a right for most of us.

Proponents of restrictive ID laws often fall back on the argument that a government-ID requirement for voting is reasonable, because having an ID is a purported necessity in modern life. You have to have an ID to board a plane, they say. It's a curious example they choose.

The first problem is that the example is irrelevant. Voting is at the heart of our constitutional order, guaranteed to every eligible citizen. Boarding a plane is a nice perk. The republic doesn't crumble if the people don't fly on planes.

But the example is also dead wrong. Actually, you don't have to have an ID to board a plane. I proved this firsthand, when I had the opportunity to testify before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee just over one year ago, on the propriety of voter ID laws. As recounted here in an ACS brief, when I got to Los Angeles airport, I had no photo ID in my wallet, government-issued or otherwise. Instead, I had two credit cards, a firing range card, a health insurance card, a blood donor card, a coffee shop frequent visitor card, and a few business cards, all without photos. I was also carrying a checkbook.

The TSA officer at the airport check-in station examined my boarding pass, and asked me to step aside for additional questions; another officer reviewed my other paperwork, and asked a bit more. I was then asked to step through the (regular) security line, where my bags were screened, and a backscatter image was taken. I estimate that the procedure lasted approximately ten minutes longer than the normal procedure experienced by individuals in the same line who had photo identification on hand.

After clearing security, I enjoyed a beer in the airport Chili's -- without using photo ID. When I arrived in Washington, DC, I checked into my hotel -- without using photo ID. I then made my way to the Dirksen Senate office building, and to the Committee's hearing room -- without using photo ID. Commercial vendors and federal governments alike have demonstrated that when it is financially or politically important to extend access even to citizens without certain photo identification, such citizens can be accommodated with minimal disruption to normal business practices.

Since my trip, I've often been asked whether my experience was a fluke, or a parlor trick. It was, emphatically, neither. It was policy -- for years, the TSA and its predecessor agencies have consistently maintained a policy making sure that they can accommodate those without particular government-issued photo identification.

This past weekend, one of my former students called my attention to a New York Times column recounting a similar, albeit unplanned, experience. She got to the airport without photo ID. She went through some minor incremental screening, filling out a form remarkably like an affidavit (which some states permit as an alternative to the most restrictive voter ID rules). And then she got on to her plane. If you look at the comments section of the online version of the article, you'll see plenty of other examples, of readers from around the country verifying their own experiences of flying without government-issued photo ID.

So the "you have to have an ID to fly" line turns out to be both completely irrelevant and completely inaccurate. When it matters enough, we figure out how to accommodate Americans who don't meet "normal" expectations. It's nice to have extra company to prove it.

Associate Professor Justin Levitt runs All About Redistricting, a blog and portal dedicated to deciphering the redrawing of electoral lines.