Trump’s Groceries Gaffe Is Even More Baseless Than It Seems

Contrary to what the president says, you don’t need ID to buy food. Lots of people don’t need ID for anything at all.

Danny Johnston / AP

Has Donald Trump ever been grocery shopping?

If there was any doubt that the developer turned celebrity turned president lived a cloistered life among the New York elite, his gaffe at a recent rally confirmed it.

Among the traditional Trump smorgasbord of boasts and attacks Tuesday night, Trump touched on another of his greatest hits: the specter of noncitizen voter fraud and the need for voter ID.

“If you go out and you want to buy groceries, you need a picture on a card—you need ID,” he said. “You go out and you want to buy anything, you need ID and you need your picture.”

Of course, people don’t need photo identification to buy milk. The idea is preposterous, and lends easily to the gold-plated Trump caricature. But zooming out from this specific misstep, it’s clear that the president is echoing a well-worn argument from conservatives. Photo identification is already required for so many other mundane transactions that don’t come close to the seriousness of preventing election fraud. You need photo ID for flying, for driving, for buying alcohol and cigarettes, for buying houses, and for opening bank accounts, so why wouldn’t you need it to vote? As much as Trump failed in delivering that basic argument, it’s certainly a compelling one for his base.

But that argument is also wrong, for what it’s worth.

Strict photo-ID requirements—that is, requirements without reasonable workarounds for those who lack said identification—are relatively rare in American society. Even alcohol and cigarette purchases—which could charitably count as “groceries”—aren’t as tightly and universally bound by photo ID as proponents of the election measures suggest. Aside from the few states, like Tennessee and Indiana, that have implemented “universal carding,” most states allow people who look to be well older than 21 to purchase alcohol and tobacco without the hassle. (Most Americans would probably consider it pretty weird if great-grandmothers got carded on beer runs.)

Their sale isn’t really analogous to voting, though—alcohol and tobacco are vices. Photo ID in that context is mostly used to avoid fines related to underage sales, not matters of security and fraud prevention.

It might seem that commercial flying, an act that is regulated through the national-security apparatus, would be a better example, since driver’s licenses and passports are such integral parts of the check-in process. But that’s not right either: People don’t actually need a government-issued photo ID to fly. In fact, the Transportation Security Administration’s website states that travelers without ID are asked “to complete an identity verification process which includes collecting information such as your name, current address, and other personal information to confirm your identity.” Barring criminal warrants or other red flags, most passengers without ID are allowed to fly after a pat-down and a bag inspection. I’m one of them: Speaking from experience, the process is a hassle, but one designed specifically to accommodate people who’ve lost or don’t have a driver’s license. (From that experience, I can say that the hassle is well worth it to avoid being trapped in Las Vegas forever.)

Defenders of voter ID often see parallels between other areas of daily life where the federal bureaucracy extends: The Patriot Act and related laws pertaining to the Department of Homeland Security have created much tougher identification requirements for a number of tasks, including opening bank accounts, buying houses, buying regulated behind-the-counter drugs, and seeking employment.

But for each, again, there are some reasonable loopholes for the few citizens without the required documents. All bank transactions and new accounts—including home mortgages—are governed by a Patriot Act–enhanced version of the Bank Secrecy Act. That requires financial institutions to run a Customer Identification Program (CIP), an effort to crack down on suspicious financial activity on behalf of terrorist groups and organized crime. But the CIP allows banks to use different tiers of verification for customers who lack photo ID for specific reasons; allows employee discretion in verifying the identification of customers they know; and also, in some cases, might allow a combination of Social Security cards and voter-registration cards to serve as acceptable ID. Some local banks specifically account for people without photo ID in their written procedures. For example, the Callaway Bank, which serves mid-Missouri cities, says that people opening new accounts “can bring in 2 forms of ID,” including a Social Security card, a birth certificate, a Medicare card, or an insurance card.

The world of constant, mandatory ID checking that voter-ID proponents think exists would probably look like a dystopia to some of their libertarian-leaning intellectual forefathers. To the credit of those proponents though, the reality is still pretty dystopian. The Patriot Act really did make some run-of-the-mill actions more difficult, and aggressive identification policies for alcohol and tobacco certainly helped whet the policy appetite for Big Brother.

But even so, the rationale undergirding identification practices just doesn’t make sense for voting. For liquor and cigarettes, carding is necessary only to establish the age of the customer, a requirement that’s already well handled by voter-registration practices in every state. In airplane travel and for dangerous drugs, identification is used specifically for surveillance—a usage that would be terrifying if applied to voting. With bank accounts, identification is used both for surveillance and for fraud prevention. As years’ worth of data make clear, the only kind of fraud that voter ID can prevent—someone impersonating another registered voter at the ballot box—pretty much never happens.

Even in the increasingly surveilled state of modern America, federal, state, and local policies create workarounds precisely because of the reasons why people object to voter ID. Most living Americans were born in a less identification-obsessed time, and many older people of color especially were born into situations where the vital records needed to obtain government ID might have never been supplied. For elderly Americans, or for people who don’t or can’t drive, or for those living in small towns, navigating daily activities without a license or passport is a normal part of life. People live in and pass down houses and cash checks in bank accounts without ever having to show identification. They go to pharmacies and get necessary medications without having to produce licenses. Everything is fine.

Moreover, there are millions of people who don’t engage in these systems at all. Millions of poor and low-income people are unbanked or underbanked. Most people in that population probably don’t fly much, either, and many don’t own homes.

Poor folks, urban people, and people of color are less likely, by far, to have licenses and passports. That’s because both carry fees, have lengthy application and certification processes, and are technically optional credentials. They have specific functions that have nothing to do with the identification requirements of the modern surveillance system.

That system has a long way to go before it requires people to show identification to buy groceries. Contrary to Trump and many of the biggest crusaders for voter ID, lots of people don’t have to show identification for anything, ever. But the president’s comment does provide an unintentionally useful corollary: that denying people the ballot because they don’t have a license would be the same moral travesty as denying a family milk because they don’t have one.