A proposal to put photos on Social Security cards to give all Americans identification when they head to the polls is gaining traction as an increasing number of states push for stricter voter ID laws.
The idea is by no means universally embraced. Some Democrats say Social Security cards are no easier to obtain than regular state-issued IDs and that using them for ID purposes poses an identity-theft risk. And some conservatives worry the plan would put the government in the role of Big Brother issuing national identity cards.
But the proposal — floated by former U.N. ambassador and civil rights activist Andrew Young — has piqued the interest of leaders across the political spectrum who see it as a workable compromise.
"We're glad that [Young and others] are bringing attention to this issue and we hope that there will be a concerted effort, backed by sufficient resources and time, to make sure that IDs get into the hands of Americans who don't have them," said Myrna Perez, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Many Republican-controlled states in recent years have tightened voter ID requirements at the polls to prevent voter fraud, which they say is rampant and undetected. But Democrats and voting rights advocates say their true goal is to suppress voter turnout among traditional Democratic constituencies such as blacks, students, the elderly and the poor, who are less likely to have valid state-issued IDs than other groups.
Young, chairman of a bipartisan group called Why Tuesday that aims to increase voter turnout, says that while he's not against requiring voters to show a picture ID, the cards should be easy to get, free and universally available.
"What we're saying is, everybody's got a Social Security card," Young said at a civil rights event in Texas last month. "Providing eligible voters the ability to obtain a photo on a Social Security card eliminates any genuine concern."
But the idea faces many challenges. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who helps oversee Social Security as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told the Washington Post he is uneasy about using Social Security cards for ID purposes because they pose identity-theft problems.
"There must be a better way," he said. "We should open up the political process and let everybody in.”
The issue has heated up since last year's Supreme Court ruling that struck down key parts of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The move weakened federal oversight of state election boards, making it easier for states to implement stricter voter ID laws.
But the new laws still are very much in flux in more than a dozen states. Federal judges in April struck down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Arkansas, though the Arkansas Supreme Court temporarily stayed the decision.
Political analyst Norm Ornstein, a cofounder of Why Tuesday and supporter of Young's plan, said since it's likely some state laws will remain, the federal government should do everything possible to improve voter access.
"It's in the broader interest of everyone to have a voter ID, and that's the point that Andy Young makes," said Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Young has called on President Obama to invoke an executive order to implement his plan. But the White House has been conspicuously silent, as the president repeatedly has said that state-level voting restrictions are a significant concern.
Others dispute Young's claims his proposal wouldn't cost much. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik says studies show the plan would cost at least $20 per card, essentially making it cost prohibitive.
Ornstein admits "there are plenty of obstacles" facing the proposal but said an executive order to put the plan in motion isn't an impossibility.
"I don't see a groundswell here, [but] I'm hopeful," he said.