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Debating Voter ID Laws

With the presidential primary season in full swing, voters are going to the polls to pick their preferred candidates for the country’s highest office. Some of these voters, however, must verify their identity and eligibility before they cast their ballot. These state rules, or “voter ID laws,” are the subject of great controversy. Advocates of voter ID laws argue that it is essential to establish a voter’s identity in order to prevent fraud. Opponents claim that photo ID requirements disenfranchise minorities and people without the means to obtain a photo ID, and that these laws address a problem that doesn’t exist. This eLesson introduces students to the debate surrounding voter ID laws, enables them to learn more about voting laws in their own state, and challenges them to think deeply about bigger questions about the nature of voting, privacy, and the duties of citizenship.



  1. Explain to students what voter ID is and how it works, and highlight the common arguments for and against.
    1. Common arguments in favor of voter ID include:
      1. In general, it is a good idea to verify a voter’s identity in order to ensure a one-vote-per-person system.
      2. There are many cases in which people registered in multiple states vote multiple times.
      3. There are many cases in which deceased registered voters cast a ballot-someone is fraudulently claiming to be the deceased voter.
      4. Non-citizens vote in large numbers, though they do not possess the legal right to do so.
    2. Common arguments against voter ID include:
      1. Some people lack photo ID’s and lack the ability to easily obtain one.
      2. Voter ID requirements disproportionately disadvantage black and Latino voters.
      3. These laws disadvantage minorities, the elderly, and students.
      4. Voting fraud is so rare that it is unnecessary to require an ID.
  2. Then, as homework the night before, or in-class, have students explore the interactive map and information guide provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Students should consider the following questions as they research.
    1. What voter ID laws does their state currently have in place?
    2. If their state requires a voter ID, what form of ID does it require? If no ID is required, must citizens provide a different proof of identity?
      1. Among states that require an ID, there are two types, a “Strict State,” or “Non-Strict State.” Strict states require voters to show an ID, or else they must cast a provisional ballot (a ballot that may not be accepted as valid). Non-Strict states require voters to provide something other than an ID. For example, a person may have to sign a statement attesting to their identity and eligibility to vote.
    3. Is their state’s voter ID law being challenged in court? Was it challenged in the past? Was the law upheld or struck down?
  3. Assigned as homework or in-class, have students read at least one article in favor of Voter ID’s and one article against it. Four article choices are included in the resources section above.
    1. Students should analyze each article’s argument. On paper, ask them to briefly summarize the article’s central argument in their own words. Next, they should write down (as bullet points) the evidence and sub-arguments the author uses to establish his or her position.
    2. What kinds of evidence do these authors use? Some examples of different types of evidence include statistics, case law, and historical examples.
    3. Which argument do students think is more convincing and why?
  4. Organize a debate in class.
    1. Take six slips of paper and write “PRO” on three slips, and “CON” on the other three. Have six student volunteers randomly draw slips. Match each student with an opposite student to debate.
    2. Once students have drawn a side for or against Voter ID laws, give them five minutes to prepare a two-minute speech to the class in favor of their side.
    3. At the end of their two-minute speech, allow their opponent to cross-examine the first speaker for one minute. During cross-examination, the second speaker is the only person who can ask questions. The questions should be designed to clarify the first speaker’s arguments, and to ask questions which may show weakness in their opponent’s argument.
    4. After the one-minute cross-examination period has elapsed, the second speaker must give his or her two-minute speech in favor of their side. If inconsistencies in the first speaker’s argument or reasoning were detected during cross-examination, the second speaker may highlight them.
    5. After the second speaker has finished, he or she will be cross-examined for one minute by the first speaker. When this is complete, have students cast secret ballots on who they believe won the debate. Complete this cycle until all three debate rounds are complete. You may have a class discussion about what was learned from the debates.

Discussion Questions

  1. Critics of voter ID laws point out that there is often a small fee associated with obtaining a government-issued photo ID card. Critics compare this to poll taxes, which were fees levied on African Americans as a precondition of exercising their right to vote. Do you agree with this comparison? In what ways are there parallels between both examples and how are they different? Are the contexts the same or different? What are ways in which state governments could circumvent fees for photo ID’s?
  2. Some countries make voting mandatory. Supporters of mandatory voting say it reduces fraud and increases participation, while critics say that uninformed voting creates more problems than universal voting. Do you think mandatory voting is a good idea? Is not voting sometimes justified?
  3. Some people argue that states should standardize their ID cards as part of a national ID system, and that all Americans should possess one of these ID’s. Critics of this idea contend that a central database of Americans’ personal information would lead to surveillance and abuse. What do you think?
  4. If your class has students eighteen years of age or older, what experiences have they had when voting? What forms of identification did they have to provide? Have any of the students been turned away from voting? Do they know friends or family members that have encountered difficulty voting?