man holding voter id required sign

The term “voter ID” typically has referred to the identification voters provide at polling places before they can cast a ballot, but this year lawmakers shifted their attention to ID requirements for requesting and returning absentee/mail ballots.

Voter ID: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going?

By Amanda Zoch | Oct. 4, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

Proponents say voter ID laws prevent fraud. Opponents say they disenfranchise some voters. NCSL says, “It’s an evergreen topic!”

NCSL’s elections newsletter, “The Canvass,” has featured voter identification laws—those that request or require voters to show an ID at a polling place—a whopping 14 times since 2008, more than any other single election policy. Voter ID received the most attention from policymakers in the early 2010s, and though interest has waned some over the past decade, it has never gone away. Each year, about two-thirds of the states see at least one bill aiming to add, repeal or alter voter ID laws in the state (see table below).

Prior to this year, the most significant enactments occurred in 2018—when both Arkansas and North Carolina voters approved ballot measures amending the states’ constitutions to require photo voter ID. Passage of Arkansas’ constitutional amendment marked the conclusion of a long struggle to establish photo voter ID in the Natural State (similar legislation in 2013 and 2017 faced court challenges). Citing racial bias, North Carolina’s law was struck down in September.

Interest in voter ID has spiked again this year, culminating in several significant enactments for the first time since 2018. As more voters chose to vote by mail, an interest in voter ID requirements for absentee/mail ballots also came to the fore.

Voter ID Introductions, 2011-21

No. of States
No. of Introductions
No. of Enactments
2011 37 138 12
2013 35 121 15
2015 34 115 8
2017 37 113 6
2019 31 92 12
2021 39 160 6

Source: NCSL


In short, it’s time for us to revisit voter ID again. This month, we take a brief look at the history of voter ID, then turn our attention to what’s new and different in 2021. Read on for our analysis or find the facts on NCSL’s voter ID webpage.

A Decade of Steady Growth

Requirements for voters to show some form of identification at the polls have become much more widespread since 2000, when 13 states had requirements. By 2020, that number had nearly tripled to 34 (see map below).

The increase demonstrates the slow, yet steady growth of voter ID laws across the country—but that’s just one part of the voter ID landscape. Over the same 20 years, some states with voter ID laws also made theirs stricter.

NCSL categorizes voter ID requirements by type (photo or non-photo) and options for alternatives (strict or non-strict). (Find the complete breakdown here.) When states first establish voter ID requirements, they often implement a non-photo, non-strict law. Once established, however, a handful of states have acted to either require a photo ID or to limit alternatives for voters who don’t have the proper identification. Of the 21 states that started with non-photo, non-strict requirements, nine have made their laws stricter. Just two states have eased their ID requirements: Texas in 2017 and Virginia in 2020. The Texas change came after a 2011 voter ID bill was found to intentionally discriminate against Latino and Black voters, and the 2017 bill creates alternatives for voters who cannot reasonably obtain one of the seven forms of ID accepted at the polls.

A Flurry of Activity in 2021

Action on voter ID was down over the past few years (see table above), but this year it came roaring back. Notably, Wyoming enacted the state’s first voter ID law after similar bills failed in 2013, 2017 and 2020, bringing the national total of states with voter ID laws to 35.

Like virtually all bills to add voter ID requirements or make existing requirements stricter, the action this year has been in Republican-led states. Arkansas and Wyoming added or strengthened existing voter ID requirements, while Indiana and North Dakota expanded the types of identification accepted for voting. Montana’s bill did both. See what didn’t pass, as well as previous year’s actions, in NCSL’s election legislation database.

This year’s enactments:

  • Arkansas HB 1112 eliminated the option to cast a provisional ballot with a sworn statement for voters without photo ID. This moves Arkansas from NCSL’s photo ID, non-strict requirements category to the photo ID, strict requirements category. Separately, Arkansas HB 1244 removed the exemption from showing a photo ID for those with sincere religious beliefs preventing them from taking a photograph. 
  • Indiana HB 1485 expanded the definition of identification for voting to include a tribal ID.
  • Montana SB 169 required voters without a state, military, tribal ID or passport to provide two forms of alternative ID, one of which must include a photo. This enactment also added concealed carry permits to the list of accepted voter IDs.
  • North Dakota HB 1447 allowed institutions of higher education to issue students a printable document containing the institution’s letterhead or seal and the student’s legal name, current residential address, date the residential address was established and date of birth. This document, along with a student photo ID card, will be accepted as a valid form of voter ID.
  • Wyoming HB 75 enacted a non-photo, strict requirements ID law, though the state will accept Medicare and Medicaid ID cards (neither of which include a photo) through Dec. 31, 2029.

But the action doesn’t stop there. Citizen initiatives in Missouri and Nebraska, as well as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment in Pennsylvania, all seek to put the voter ID question before voters. None of these attempts have qualified for the ballot yet—the citizen initiative campaigns are both in the signature-gathering phase, and Pennsylvania’s legislative referral has passed the Senate but has not yet come up for a vote in the House.

Why so much activity on voter ID this year? It’s hard to say, but the increased public support for voter ID (a recent Monmouth University poll shows 80% of Americans support photo ID requirements), a contentious presidential election and unfounded claims of voter fraud are likely contributors to increased legislative interest.

“It is a necessary function of our republic to provide our citizens with confidence that our elections are secure, fair and valid,” says Wyoming Representative Chuck Gray (R) of his state’s new voter ID law.

But not everyone agrees. “Voter identification laws are an unnecessary hindrance on the constitutional right to vote given that voter impersonation fraud is one of the rarest forms of crimes,” Nebraska Senator Adam Morfeld (D) says. “These laws have a disproportionate impact on those who are highly mobile, elderly and people with disabilities.”

What was once a policy no-go for Democrats, however, has become a place for compromise—at least on the national level. Some Democrats, including Stacey Abrams of Georgia, have expressed openness to voter ID, just not the more restrictive forms of it.

Recent research has, perhaps, played a role in that shift. A 2014 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws had mixed effects on turnout, while a 2019 study by Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons, of the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, found that voter ID laws don’t dampen turnout. Right-leaning groups, such as the Honest Elections Project, still advocate for photo ID laws, and those on the left, such as the Brennan Center, still critique the laws for disenfranchising voters, especially seniors, minorities and students. But compared with a decade ago, the heat is off.

Identification for Absentee/Mail Voting

NCSL uses the term “voter ID” to mean the identification voters provide at a polling place before they can cast a ballot—that is, ID for in-person voting. This year is different because some lawmakers have shifted their attention to identification requirements for requesting and returning absentee/mail ballots.

In general, states have rigorous processes for both absentee ballot requests and for verifying voted ballots when they are returned.

In most states, election officials verify the identity of anyone who submits an absentee ballot application. (The states that don’t verify voters at the time of application do so instead when ballots are returned.) In 35 states, verification is done by checking the applicant’s information and eligibility against the voter registration record. Of the 35, 18 conduct signature verification in addition to checking the applicant’s voter registration record. At least 16 states have online absentee ballot request portals, which can also ensure the accuracy of the request.

And yet, coming into 2021, six states required voters to provide an ID or take additional steps when requesting an absentee ballot, such as getting the application notarized. This year, Florida, Georgia and Texas passed laws requiring voters to provide either their driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number when requesting a ballot, bringing the total to eight.

As for the return of voted absentee/mail ballots, most states conduct signature verification, and voters may also be asked to provide a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. Thirteen states require additional information, such as a witness signature, notary signature or—as in Alabama and Arkansas—a copy of the voter’s ID with the voter’s ballot. The main changes this year aren’t particularly big: Georgia and Texas moved from requiring just a signature to a signature plus a driver’s license number or the last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number.

Although these changes may seem small, they represent a significant shift away from voter ID at the polling place to ID requirements for voting outside of the polling place.

Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

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