The Strange Elegance of Joe Manchin’s Voter-ID Deal

Voter-ID laws are noxious. But they don’t suppress turnout that much.

Joe Manchin
Samuel Corum / Getty

About the author: David Litt is a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama. He is a bestselling author and the publisher of the newsletter How Democracy Lives.

In order to secure his vote on the most significant voting-rights legislation in more than half a century, Senator Joe Manchin is demanding that every American be required to show identification in order to vote. Democrats shouldn’t hold their nose and take that deal.

They should embrace it with open arms.

Manchin has been frequently and fairly criticized for incoherence on democracy issues. His recent op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which argued that partisan voting restrictions should be undone only with bipartisan support, was illogical. But now the staunch advocates, rather than the reluctant moderates, are facing a crucial test—and to pass that test, it’s time for Democrats to have a full, honest conversation about requiring voter ID.

That conversation doesn’t have to exonerate most voter-ID laws currently on the books, or the politicians who passed them. In 2000, just 13 states required voters to present some form of identification. By the 2020 election, that number had risen to 34. These new laws—passed overwhelmingly by Republican lawmakers—did almost nothing to reduce fraud. But that was never their purpose. They were designed to block young voters and nonwhite voters from the polls, part of the most aggressive nationwide assault on democracy since the adoption of Jim Crow.

Some of the ID requirements passed in recent years are ham-fisted in the way they target liberals and exempt conservatives. In Tennessee, for example, a voter with a gun permit can cast a ballot, while a voter with a University of Tennessee identification card cannot. These laws were created in bad faith. They were passed by authoritarians. They are designed to perpetuate racism—and keep large numbers of likely Democrats from accessing the polls.

But so far, they haven’t really worked as intended. A 2016 study in Texas, home to some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, surveyed nonvoters from that year’s election in the Democratic stronghold of Harris County. Just 1.5 percent of them listed not having identification as the main reason they didn’t vote. A 2014 Virginia study found that of the 2.2 million eligible voters who tried to cast a ballot in that year’s election, just 474, or approximately one in 4,600, were stymied by lack of ID. These are not outliers. The UC Davis political scientist Benjamin Highton, after surveying ID laws nationwide, concluded that they had “modest, if any, turnout effects.”

Why haven’t voter-ID laws suppressed very many votes? No one really knows. It’s possible that these blatant attempts at voter suppression have created an equal and opposite backlash, driving turnout among the groups intended to be suppressed. It’s also possible that future, more carefully targeted voter-ID laws will be far more effective at manipulating elections. But if this ends up being the case, it will only prove the broader point: Although requiring voter ID is unnecessary, and the politicians who support it tend to do so for deplorable reasons, the act of requiring identification in order to vote is not in and of itself voter suppression.

Perhaps this is one reason a majority of Americans support making voting easier for everyone, but also support voter-ID laws. The narrow, highly engaged slice of the electorate that votes regularly in primaries, donates money to campaigns, and dominates Twitter knows that these laws are meant to keep people from voting. But the median voter doesn’t.

Given the racist history and targeted nature of these laws, “You need an ID to buy alcohol or rent a car, so why shouldn’t you need an ID to vote?” is not an honest argument. But it’s a persuasive one.

That’s exactly why Manchin’s proposal is, as a matter of both policy and politics, quite elegant. The currently available evidence suggests that, as improbable as it may seem, expanding voter-ID requirements to all 50 states would do little to reduce turnout. But Manchin’s not just trying to require identification nationwide. He would also expand the types of government ID that can be used in elections, for example by allowing voters to cast ballots if they display a utility bill. This version of a voter-ID law would require voters to prove their identity without disenfranchising a large number of voters—in other words, it’s the exact type of voter-ID law most Americans already support.

And consider what Democrats, and democracy, will get in return for this concession. Automatic voter registration. An end to partisan gerrymandering. Mandatory early voting nationwide. Joe Manchin’s offer will leave some voters out. That’s bad. But the number of voters who will be enfranchised by this proposal outnumbers—by orders of magnitude—the number who will be left disenfranchised. That’s not just a step in the right direction. It is, potentially, the difference between preserving our democratic system of government and not.

Manchin’s proposal comes with enormous political benefits as well. For years, Republicans have argued that Democrats weren’t serious about election reform because they opposed voter-ID laws. Now many Democrats (including the party’s leading voting-rights advocate, Stacey Abrams) have agreed not just to allow voter-ID requirements but to bring them to every state in the country—and Republicans immediately flip-flopped. The sight of Mitch McConnell and other leading GOP senators opposing what they as recently as yesterday insisted was a national imperative is not surprising. But it puts Republicans on the wrong side of popular opinion. And it clarifies for even the least engaged voter exactly where the two parties stand.

Hopefully, this is a clarifying moment for Joe Manchin as well. In leaked remarks, the senator recently opened the door to changing the Senate’s filibuster rule. But Manchin is also a proud and stubborn believer in bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. We can’t protect democracy without reforming the filibuster. And like it or not, Manchin won’t reform the filibuster unless he is satisfied that Republicans were given a fair chance to compromise on a bill that ought to have garnered bipartisan support.

Americans who care about protecting democracy should be enormously proud that their movement has reached this moment. They sounded the alarm on the growing danger of authoritarianism. They inspired the grassroots to care about elements of the political process once regarded as hopelessly dry. There’s a long way to go before a bill can be signed into law, but through political pressure and dogged insistence, they brought their party’s most recalcitrant senator to the table.

Now they have to decide. Take the Pyrrhic victory, preserving a long-held stance against the concept of voter-ID laws while losing democracy itself? Or set the stage for a genuine triumph, conceding on something unessential while protecting the foundation of our republic?

The choice isn’t easy, but it’s obvious. Democrats need to take the win.