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Adding photos to Social Security cards won't fix voter ID laws

Backers of a new idea to add photos to Social Security cards say it's a way to push back on voter ID laws. But there are signs it could have the reverse effect.
In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 photo, a voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas.
In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 photo, a voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas.

A proposal floated earlier this month to put photos on Social Security cards is drawing praise as a sensible compromise over voter ID. The idea’s advocates say it’s just a way to make IDs more accessible—something few could object to. But it sits uneasily with President Obama’s sharp new tone on voting rights. And already there are signs that it could help grease the skids for more states to adopt strict voter ID laws.

Spearheading the push for the proposal is Andrew Young, a civil-rights icon—he was a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr.—whose commitment to voting rights is unimpeachable. Young, a former U.N. ambassador, chairs the group Why Tuesday, which aims to increase voter turnout (its most prominent idea is moving elections to the weekend). The Social Security card idea gained national attention when President Bill Clinton endorsed it at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. President Jimmy Carter also has signed on.

The logic is pretty simple: As voting-rights advocates have shown at length, many people—especially minorities and the poor—lack a photo ID, and getting one isn't always simple. So letting people get a photo added to their Social Security card could ensure that they’re not barred from voting in the growing number of states with voter ID requirements. For some people, a trip to a Social Security office is easier than one to a state office that issues IDs, which may be hundreds of miles away.

Young also stresses that having an ID would have benefits beyond voting, especially for many poor Americans, since it would give them access to banks, ending their reliance on check-cashing storefronts that charge fees.

Why Tuesday, Young’s group, has made clear it opposes voter ID requirements, and it presents the Social Security card idea as a way to “push back on restrictive voter ID laws being enacted in the United States.

But even within Why Tuesday itself, not everyone sees it that way.

Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots who serves on Why Tuesday’s board of advisers, told msnbc he’s already had discussions about a “tradeoff,” in which the ability to add photos to Social Security cards is paired with a voter ID requirement. Meckler, who now runs an organization that aims to return power to the local level, is actively working on an effort to establish voter ID in every state, via a “Convention of States” authorized under the Constitution, he told conservative activists in February.

“People on the right see requiring ID as a way of doing away with a large amount of voter fraud. And people on the left see voter ID as a way to disenfranchise people from voting, potentially," said Meckler. "That problem is potentially solved if you put a picture on a Social Security card and require it for voting.”

It's worth noting that Meckler isn’t the only person associated with Why Tuesday whose record on expanding access to voting hardly inspires confidence. The group’s advisory board also includes two former Bush administration political strategists, Ken Mehlman and Sara Taylor. Mehlman eagerly pushed the Bush campaign’s line that Democrats were using voter fraud to steal the 2004 election, and Taylor was entangled in the U.S. attorney firings scandal, in which several top federal prosecutors were fired for insufficient zeal in prosecuting voter fraud cases.

Young and Why Tuesday haven't endorsed Meckler's tradeoff, of course. But their proposal may unwittingly play into the hands of voter ID supporters, by accepting the Republican-backed notion that stopping in-person voter fraud is an urgent and legitimate goal. In reality, careful and detailed research has shown that voter fraud via in-person impersonation—the only kind of fraud that voter ID would prevent—accounts for a share of all votes cast that’s so tiny as to be essentially zero.

As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times put it last week in a column that also raised questions about the cost and the logistical feasibility of the idea: “Why [the proposal’s backers] think that capitulating to an openly fabricated claim about voter fraud will end the Republican attack on the electoral franchise is anyone's guess." 

Norm Ornstein, a co-chair of Why Tuesday and a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, rejects that view. He sees voter ID laws as unjustified efforts to make voting harder. But, he argues, since we're stuck with them for now, why not do all we can to help people get the ID they need?

"You don’t have to concede any legitimacy to something to try and ameliorate a problem that exists and isn’t going away soon for people who are stuck in a bad position," Ornstein told msnbc. 

Still, it's not hard to detect a troubling accommodation to the logic of voter ID in the way some of those supporting the Social Security card idea present it—even leaving aside Meckler's "tradeoff."

“The idea behind this agreement is to find a way forward that eliminates error and makes the best possible decision that we can all live with,” Clinton told the crowd at the Civil Right Summit. “It is not to paralyze and divide a country with significant challenges.”

And the veteran liberal columnist Eleanor Clift backs the Social Security card idea in part because she sees the momentum behind the GOP campaign for voter ID as unstoppable. “With ID required for so much in modern life, exempting voters is a losing proposition,” Clift wrote in the Daily Beast.

That move toward accommodation contrasts sharply with the new tack taken by Obama on voting rights. In a speech earlier this month at the National Action Network, he framed voting restrictions as an urgent civil rights issue, not as a potential area for compromise.

“The real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud,” Obama said.

All this comes as Democrats and voting-rights advocates—beset by a slew of voting restrictions from ID requirements to early voting cuts to voter purges—face increasing pressure to compromise on voter ID as part of a triage strategy. A congressional proposal unveiled earlier this year to strengthen the Voting Rights Act contained an explicit exemption for voter ID laws, in an effort to win Republican support. And in Missouri, voting-rights advocates worry that political horse-trading could lead Democrats to agree to a voter ID law in return for establishing early voting.

Ohio offers a different model for how to respond to the conservative campaign to implement restrictions on voting. Republicans there enacted a set of laws designed to make voting harder, but shelved a voter ID proposal after Democrats and voting-rights advocates worked to mobilize Ohioans against it.