Steve Chapman

Seniors can verify their eligibility for Social Security without a photo ID. Food stamps? Federal regulations say "any documents which reasonably establish the applicant's identity must be accepted, and no requirement for a specific document, such as a birth certificate, may be imposed." Libraries will generally accept a utility bill or something similar to issue a card.

Opening a bank account? Larry Dupuis, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation, says he never had to show an ID to open his account, which he did some two decades ago. "It's really a post-9/11 thing," he says, for banks to require one. But many poor people don't have bank accounts.

Those activities, in any event, are not constitutionally guaranteed, which voting is. The government can impose regulations that affect constitutional rights. But it must have a good reason, and the rules can't be an undue burden. States can mandate a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, which the Supreme Court says is a modest restriction justified by "the state's interest in protecting the life of the unborn."

Under federal law, you may buy a gun from a private seller without an ID. Licensed dealers must see photo identification, despite the Second Amendment. That's not hard to justify because if a person forbidden to own firearms acquires one -- say a convicted felon -- the outcome may be fatal.

If a person forbidden to vote manages to cast a ballot by pretending to be someone else, by contrast, the election result will almost never be affected. Besides, the sort of fraud that an ID would prevent is exceedingly rare. The court in Wisconsin found the requirement would block vastly more legal voters than fraudulent ones.

States have long had procedures that discourage fraud by impersonation without blocking legitimate voters from the polls. The stricter new requirements may sound reasonable, but they're not reasonable for everyone -- or reasonable for democracy.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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