At times during national crises, it has been proposed that residents of the United States be required to carry some proof of identity, but so far such a proposal has not been implemented. Critics of national identification cards argue that their issuance would raise numerous constitutional concerns, including those associated with privacy, freedom of association, and the franchise.
Advocates have several reasons for issuing national identification cards
Over one hundred countries, including many major Western democracies, issue national identification cards and require their citizens to show them when voting, traveling, or applying for government benefits. In some countries, a passport is used instead of a national identification card. Advocates offer several reasons for the issuance of such cards:
- First, the cards would contribute to national security. Proof of identity would help the government keep track of illegal immigrants, criminals, and individuals who might pose a risk to the United States.
- Second, the cards would prevent identity theft and fraud.
- Third, such cards would facilitate the delivery of government services to citizens by ensuring that noncitizens do not receive the services in error.
- Fourth, the cards would promote law enforcement goals by making it easier for police to determine the identity of individuals and criminal suspects.
- Finally, use of the cards would prevent voter fraud in elections.
Congress recently debated national identification cards
Congress recently debated the need for national identification cards on at least two occasions. The first was in 1998 in a House committee. Congress considered the idea again after the al-Qaida attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, but it did not act.
Some say the Social Security card is already a national identification card
Even though the United States issues no official national identification cards, several government-issued documents serve similar functions. In most, if not all, states, a driver’s license serves as a government-issued identification card when making commercial transactions or voting. The Social Security card, or at least the number, is also often used for governmental, and occasionally nongovernmental, purposes to establish an identity. Thus one could argue that a form of a government-issued or national identification card already exists.
Critics of the cards say mandating them would violate the Constitution
Critics of these cards often argue that mandating them would violate the Constitution. Their arguments often cite the Fourth Amendment and right to privacy concerns. Other critics argue that national identification cards interfere with First Amendment rights to freedom of association.
For example, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right to engage in anonymous political speech. Based on this decision, one might argue that individuals have a right to anonymous political association, free from having to carry or produce a government-issued identification card upon request. It could also be argued that requiring voters to produce governmentissued identification cards might make it more difficult for those who lack these cards, such as the poor, to purchase them and vote.
This article was originally published in 2009. David Schultz is a professor in the Hamline University Departments of Political Science and Legal Studies, and a visiting professor of law at the University of Minnesota. He is a three-time Fulbright scholar and author/editor of more than 35 books and 200 articles, including several encyclopedias on the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court, and money, politics, and the First Amendment.