With the Justice Department about to challenge state voting laws that it claims are discriminatory, and North Carolina preparing to enact controversial new voting regulations, the debate about voter identification requirements goes on at full tilt.
Supporters of such laws argue that they're needed to prevent fraud and that opposition is absurd given the ubiquity of photo ID in everyday life. Opponents counter that fraud is extremely rare and that such measures tend to disenfranchise the most vulnerable. Quibble over the real prevalence of fraud and the actual effects of voter ID laws -- the studies are inconclusive -- but there's an often-overlooked question in this debate. Must the government do everything it can to safeguard against laws having a disproportionate effect on underprivileged groups, or should private initiative and civic engagement play a larger role?
When South Carolina passed a voter ID law in 2011, the Justice Department blocked it, using its power under the Voting Rights Act to pre-emptively stop voting-law changes in states with a history of discrimination -- the power it was recently stripped of by the Supreme Court. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez noted that registered minority voters in the state were 20 percent less likely than white voters to have ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yet the state not only required motor vehicle agencies to issue free photo IDs, and the state election commission to make sure voters were notified of the change, but provided free carpools for voters to get their identification.
Opponents claim this still isn't enough. Some elderly minority voters may lack the documentation, such as a birth certificate, required to get a photo ID, and obtaining those records can be arduous, especially if you're homebound and in poor health. That may be true. But surely this is where citizen groups that organize voter registration drives and otherwise assist voters could play a key role. There should be no shortage of volunteers to help elderly, poor, disabled voters get their papers in order.
Private initiative could be the answer to a still more contentious debate, over public subsidies for abortion, as well as local laws and regulations that impede abortion access for low-income women. In this instance, private effort is even more vital because, unlike voting, abortion is a procedure to which many taxpayers -- women as much as men -- have passionate moral objections. Even those who accept the legality of abortion often balk at paying for it.
In recent decades, feminist and reproductive rights groups have spent untold amounts of money and incalculable time, energy and effort on fighting political battles over public funding for abortion and cumbersome regulations. That money could have been better spent directly providing poor women with low-cost or free abortion services, including long-distance transportation to clinics if there are none nearby, or on helping clinics meet regulatory requirements.
Private effort could not only provide more effective solutions to real problems but also reduce social tensions. For many on the left, the issues are not just practical but symbolic: to brand concerns over voter fraud as racist; to keep the law from making even limited concessions to citizens who see abortion as the taking of innocent life. When the federal government seems to use its clout for such an agenda, many "red state" voters feel that their input in democratic governance is being trampled, and they're motivated to fight back. Shifting more decisions from government to voluntary associations would help stop the cycle of antagonism.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.