Yellow, red, white and black illustration of three people lined up to vote.
While they may be commonplace now, voter ID requirements are fairly recent. Image credit: Outlier Media

Even if voting isn’t on the minds of Detroiters right now, several communities around the metro area are indeed voting next week. Per usual, voters at the polls will be asked to show photo identification before they can vote. This wasn’t always the norm. 

Michigan voters of the past were only required to give their name and birth date at the polls.

But these days, Michigan is one of 36 states with some form of voter identification law. Some states, like New York and Minnesota, don’t require any documentation to vote. Voters without an ID in Michigan can sign an affidavit promising they are who they say they are. Then, voters can cast their ballots.

Election security has been a hotly contested issue in recent years with the integrity of ballots being called into question, especially by Republican Party officials and voters without evidence. But the safety of your vote is a fairly young concern that was born in the late 1990s. 

Shortly after Democrat Bill Clinton won the 1996 presidential election, state Republicans introduced a bill requiring all voters to either present a photo ID or sign an affidavit at the polls, a move called “political mischief” by Howard Simon, then-Michigan director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). At the time, Hawaii was the only state with a requirement to present photo ID before voting, The Detroit News reported

Supporters of the ID bill said it was necessary to prevent voter fraud. Others said the bill encouraged voter suppression, unfairly targeted minorities, and would be a barrier to the constitutional right to vote. State Rep. Morris Hood Jr., who served the Detroit area, argued the bill violated federal laws

“It has some degree of anti-minority to it,” Hood said in 1996. “It reminds me of the old days in the South with poll taxes, of South Africa and communism.” 

Engler, a Republican governor, signed the bill, sparking debate between him and state Attorney General Frank Kelley, a Democrat. Kelley, who investigated voter fraud cases, said there had been no instances of widespread voter fraud in Michigan, and he said requiring photo ID at voting booths violated the state Constitution so it couldn’t be rolled out. Engler would have had to fight for the rule in the courts, and he didn’t. 

In July 2007, Republicans in the state Legislature asked the Michigan Supreme Court to weigh in. The court upheld the move to require a photo ID or affidavit before voting. Most of the Supreme Court justices at the time were appointed to the court by Republican politicians, including three justices appointed by Engler. 

The decision was quickly opposed by the NAACP and Democrats, who yet again compared it to historical examples of voter suppression. By October, they filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the constitutionality of the law

In one 2007 reader survey by The Detroit News, 89% of respondents agreed that the photo ID law should be upheld. 

“Not only should photo ID be required for voting, proof of citizenship should be required to obtain a Photo ID such as a driver’s license or a state-issued ID to help curtail illegal immigrants from applying for welfare,” Detroit resident Cornelius E. Washington said in his response to the survey.

Officials told the Free Press that Election Day went smoothly that year, with about 99% of voters having photo ID at the polls. 

The NAACP told a different story. The Detroit branch told the Free Press they received more than 50 complaints, mainly from Detroit voters at the polls, and about half of which were related to the new photo ID requirement. 

Evidence is mixed on whether voter ID laws suppress the vote.  The Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU found strict voter ID laws to be a barrier for voters, especially marginalized groups. Michigan’s photo ID laws are not considered strict because voters are allowed to sign an affidavit in place of proper identification.

On Election Day in 2021, about one-quarter of the 11,400 residents who signed an affidavit to vote lived in Detroit. Republicans sought to challenge the affidavit exception in an election reform plan.

There are various barriers to obtaining photo IDs. Transportation to the Secretary of State (SOS) office is a barrier for the one in five Detroit households that don’t have a vehicle. Others may work during the limited SOS business hours. A standard state ID card costs $10, and drivers licenses cost more. Some residents do qualify for free IDs, depending on various factors, including age, disability, housing status, and veteran status. 

Alex (she/her) is an urban studies and public history student at Wayne State University and a Detroit Documenter. She has a special interest in researching Metro-Detroit history and seeks to connect current issues with historical context to find solutions. She believes we must understand our past to...