There has been a debate in the US regarding voter ID. Republicans seem to not trust voters who do not have them, and Democrats argue that IDs should not be necessary to vote since there are several demographic groups in the US who cannot afford an ID. Nobody seems to be proposing a federal level ID program for the US. I know many Americans are skeptical of their government being responsible enough to handle their data, but they probably already have some data over their citizens (how else would the states figure out if the person registering to vote actually exists?)

According to Harvard Law, it's costly and time-consuming to get an ID in the US. So, why is there not more of a push to make national identity cards more available in the US? That is, not to make them mandatory, but just easily available...

It doesn't make sense for the issue to be cost. The EU GDP per capita is lower than that of the US, and the EU population is higher than the US. Yet, the EEA, which comprises the EU member states alongside Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, has a national ID card system.

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    What does GDP have to do with anything? Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 20:37
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    @AzorAhai-him- I mentioned that since that indicates that the US have more resources than the EU, and it should thus be easier for them to implement such a program; Sure, GDP does not correlate perfectly with the resources a government has, but for instance, the Norwegian government has a deal with private banks that allows bank cards to be used as ID; So, comparing GDPs seemed more appropriate than comparing national revenues.
    – Avatrin
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 20:53
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    @Avatrin What makes you think it's for a lack of resources? Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 22:04
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    @Avatrin: When people ask for clarification in comments, the thing to do is to edit your question to give the clarification, rather than replying in comments. I've edited the question to -- I hope -- clarify the point that was confusing me and other people.
    – user5526
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 22:56
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    @GuntramBlohm The USA is much more like a federal country like Germany than the EU, which is something Americans often fail to understand. The level of hierarchy, authority and cohesion are just not comparable. If the US Congress declares war, Texas and Alabama cannot decide not to participate, much less California and Tenesse can decide fighting for the other side. The USA was something like the EU prior to the Civil War, and even then the federal government was much more powerful and centralized than anything the EU has.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 7:10

8 Answers 8


I know many Americans are skeptical of their government being responsible enough to handle their data, but they probably already have some data over their citizens (how else would the states figure out if the person registering to vote actually exists?)

This is incorrect because there is more than one government that is relevant to this question

Elections in these United States are run by the state governments. State governments likely do have all of the identify information you are talking about. The Federal government does not likely have all of this information, because it simply does not need to have it.

There are many people who value their privacy, and believe that the government should know only the minimum information about people which it actually needs to know. The federal government does not need to know my height, weight, physically identifying features or any other information typically on a national identity card; it does not impact the services provided to me by the federal government in any way (except international air travel). Therefore, the federal government simply does not have any legitimate reason to collect the information that a federal ID would require.

This attitude is likely less prevalent in Europe because the expectation of what services European national governments provide is different, but the principle of privacy in general is not itself that different.

So, why is there not more of a push to make national identity cards more available in the US? That is, not to make them mandatory, but just easily available...

There already is an available national identity card that is entirely optional: The U.S. Passport

While it may not meet the standard of "easily available" in your linked Harvard Law report (costs between $65 to $175 depending on whether you get the card, the book, or both), it's pretty much universally accepted for any identification purpose in the United States.

People don't feel a need for a national ID card

There is simply no activity other than international travel that Americans need a nationally-issued identity document for. State driver's licenses can be used for any routine identification purpose, and frequently are. People who do not drive can typically obtain an identity card from their state's issuing authority that serves all of the same purposes except operating a motor vehicle. The idea that the federal government would be somehow better at issuing identity documents than a state government, when it has no need for the information such documents would claim to validate, is extremely dubious.

Identifying voters in an election is not a valid reason for the federal government to issue identity cards because elections are run by state governments according to the Constitution

From Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

The question of what that actually means in practice has been before the Supreme Court on a number of occasions, but is basically nearly anything except disadvantaging particular candidates for office as a class, so long as it's oriented around ensuring elections are fair, honest, and orderly.

People argue about whether or not ID requirements actually do that or not; I will refrain from opinining on that in this answer because I think it's vastly less relevant to why there is no federal ID document; recent discussion of "voter suppression" is something that has only emerged in the past decade, whereas debates about federal ID cards have been going on for a much longer time.

EDIT: There has been a slight disagreement in the comments with my claim that the federal government does not have sufficient information to identify people, on the basis that any information the states have is likely shared with the federal government. This is worth discussing briefly.

A working definition of identity for this context is that it is the set of unique traits and characteristics associated with a unique individual. To verify someone's identity, ideally you collect three types of information from a person and compare them to a database somewhere else:

  1. Something the subject knows
  2. Something the subject has
  3. Something the subject is

The last item there is very important with regard to identity documents; it's why ID cards list your picture, your height and weight, eye color, hair color, and other physical things about you. The document acts as something you have, and allows the person inspecting it to confirm that you have physical characteristics consistent with who you say you are, in addition to what you know about yourself like your date of birth.

Information on physical characteristics of American citizens is generally not gathered by the federal government, unless:

  1. You apply for a passport (because passports need this information)
  2. You are arrested for a crime (because law enforcement captures biometric information and typically shares it with the FBI)
  3. You undergo a civil background check that requires gathering this level of information. Employment in certain regulated industries is one such type of background check (e.g. like finance, aviation, law enforcement, the military, defense contracting, and even education). Another one would be the naturalization process.

The number of people that the federal government currently has this level of information on is approximately 139 million as of May 2021. The population of the United States was 328 million in 2019, so this is hardly a complete picture of the country.

"But what about people who pay income taxes?" The IRS knows that someone with your name and your Taxpayer Identification Number paid taxes, and on what sort of income. IRS cannot perform identity verification because it does not know anything else about you besides what is on your tax return, which does not even need to be filed by you personally.

"But what about people who use banks?" The information that banks collect is enough to satisfy federal government reporting requirements. It is not enough for the federal government to identify you at a later time.

"But don't you think states share this information with the Federal government?" Umm, no? We don't have a national ID database in the US, unless you get arrested or undergo a certain kind of criminal background check (again, see link 1).

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    If you think that the federal government doesn't have all of the same identity information that the states have you are sorely mistaken.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:16
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    @divibisan Or to put it another, vastly more cynical way, I sidestep the voter national ID discussion because I feel it is better for providing an evergreen answer about why there is no national ID in the United States. When Democrats start winning state-level elections again this entire push will vanish and commentary around that topic isn't going to make sense to the future audience.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:47
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    And that group of people don't have jobs (jobs report info to the federal government even if you don't pay taxes), drive (that info is already reported) have a bank account (getting the picture yet?) There are many ways information gets reported to the federal government besides what you listed.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 18:14
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    "The federal government does not need to know my height, weight, physically identifying features or any other information typically on a national identity card" - you are wrong about the contents of a (national) ID-card. I am European and have such an ID-card. The contents of it is my full name, my date of birth/SSN and a photo. That is all.
    – d-b
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 3:49
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    I wonder if some of the attitude towards National ID cards and Passports in Europe vs. US is because while you could live your whole life in a single European country, the size of the countries and (except for England) being contiguous makes travel between them far more frequent than for many US citizens who have a vast land they can travel without ever leaving the US. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 4:14

The U.S. is closer than you might think to this. If the For The People Act passes (and that's a huge 'if'), it'll likely include a national ID requirement. For the reasons you call out, this is problematic for a number of minority populations in the U.S. and so it is very likely that Congress will issue what's known as a Categorical Grant to cover the costs of an aggressive 'get IDs into people's hands' program.

As to your question of why, the United States has been fiercely federalistic since its inception - so much so that they had to have a second go at even forming a nation in the first place because the first try was so federalistic that it collapsed almost immediately.

Federalism (small-f) considers the Federal (big-f) government to be 'the government of last resort,' used for only those things that no other level of government is capable of addressing in a meaningful way. It's power has expanded considerably over the past two centuries, but a romantic attitude towards the founding is one of the pillars of the United States' culture. Since election law is largely handled at the state level, and Federal (big-f) intervention in those laws is met with powerful resistance, the idea that the Fed should step into this arena is swept under the same issue.

We should also acknowledge, and I put this all the way down here because I know it's not what you had in mind when you asked the question, that there already exists a Federal-level identity document: the United States Passport. A U.S. Passport is valid photo-ID in every instance I am aware of. They are, however, exceedingly expensive to a very large portion of the population.

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    A "get IDs into people's hands" program is not a national ID system.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 13:30
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    @phoog I never said it was. I said we're closer to that than it might seem. I didn't say "this is us being there." Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 13:32
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    Perhaps I misunderstood. In any event, nothing I can find about the For the People Act indicates that a national ID requirement is in the works, contrary to the claim in this answer.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 9:32
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    "Problematic for minority populations" why do people think "minorities" can't get IDs? Where is the proof? Considering you need an ID to do anything - from cashing checks to buying booze... who doesn't have an ID? The notion that groups in the US can't afford to get an ID - and that a national ID law wouldn't provide provisions for the dozen people who might have problems where public assistance doesn't already covered them - is laughable.
    – WernerCD
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 10:57
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    @WernerCD it may seem hard to believe, but there are millions of Americans who do not have an ID: npr.org/2012/02/01/146204308/…
    – Kat
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 14:46

In general, there is no push to make existing IDs more available because doing so would defeat the IDs' purpose as a tool of voter suppression.

For example, the report summarized in the Harvard Law link notes that some people have to travel as far as 88 miles (142 km) each way to apply for a voter ID. This is not an accident. For example, one office in Wisconsin was open on only four days in 2012.

The report notes the usual argument in favor of the conclusion that the cards are a tool of voter suppression: the nominal purpose of protecting against voter fraud is a pretext because there aren't significant rates of voter fraud, much less of fraud that could be prevented by ID cards, and the timing of the Republican party's concern about voter fraud suggests that it is a reaction to the growing importance of swing states in deciding elections in the increasingly polarized United States.

The sentiment opposing a national ID card system is long standing and is related to skepticism of the police state, a well established priority in US politics that goes back to the nation's founding and is reflected in the Bill of Rights.

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    This answer relies on partisan white paper (even Wikipedia admits that Brennan is "generally considered liberal or progressive in its policy positions and view"); that is highly misleading. For example they seem to think "live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office open more than two days a week" is an important metrics, conviniently omitting the actually meaningful number of people who live more than 10 miles period. Because you have 200 days to do it between presidential election even if you nearby office is only one one day a week.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 21:02
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    It also alleges "voter suppression" as incontrovertible fact, instead of a politically motivated objection which it actually is. AND ignores the fact that photo ID is required to cash checks, drive, and do a whole host of other activities, whcih means the very poor minorities who supposedly can't get them, most likely already have those IDs as they wouldn't be able to function without them.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 21:06
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 16:55

First of all, there are plenty of examples of policies that work well in Europe and that seem promising for solving problems in the US, where there is not much of an appetite in the US to test them out. Healthcare is a common example. Going into details seems a bit off-topic here, but a widespread lack of awareness how stuff is done in other countries, and belief that the USA is going to be the best anyway play a role. But there is also the often justified point of the US being very different from Europe, and that there are obstacles to the transferring individual policies over.

For the concrete case of ID cards, it is noticable that in the UK there is also a widespread "ID cards are evil"-feeling (and a debate over introducing other kind of ID-for-voting requirements). So there is not just the cultural divide to overcome, but also the language barrier.

Finally, introducing a national ID card could be a good solution to a situation where the conflict is about balancing the goals of "easy access to the polls for voters" and "hard/impossible access to the polls for non-voters". But that does not actually seem to be what the conflict is about. Instead, it is a for or against voter suppression conflict - and thus national ID cards don't help at all.

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    A cynic might even say that many Americans compare their situation now with Europe/England at the time of George III.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 15:35
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    I've down-voted this answer because it is very poor quality. It ignores that there are structural differences in how government works between European governments and the United States that are directly relevant, in favor of nationalistic stereotyping.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:01
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    @Joe The question is "Why is there no push towards...", and the details of the federal system in the US are just not particularly relevant for that. If the question had been "Why hasn't a national ID card been established?" or "What are the obstacles for introducing a national ID card", then they would matter.
    – Arno
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:16
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    This answer ignores major differences between the US and European countries. The US has a population that is an order of magnitude higher than some European countries as an example. The California DMV is most likely a larger organization than the Sweden national identity card department!
    – Drew_J
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 20:30
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    @Drew_J compare whole Europe to the US, then. Same order of magnitude for population, area and number of states. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 5:52

Your question seems to be based on the assumption that a national ID card program would make it easier to get an ID for voting purposes. Based on every interaction I've ever had with any sort of government entity, dealing with a state or local government agency is an order of magnitude faster and easier than dealing with anything at the federal level. Pushing anything "up the food chain" so to speak just adds more bureaucratic overhead to the process. The current official estimate for getting a passport from the federal government is 12-18 weeks after filing the application and costs $145 or more. When I applied for my driver's license with the state, it cost me $16, I had a temporary license (valid for all official purposes) in my hand within 5 minutes, and my official license arrived 2-3 weeks later.

The primary ID people use is a driver's license. You need it to operate a vehicle, and it also serves as official ID for practically any purpose. Driver's licenses are necessarily state-issued documents because each state has different driving rules (age-based restrictions, "point" systems, etc). A national ID card would only be useful for a subset of the things that a driver's license is good for, so there doesn't seem to be much purpose for it.

Instead, the federal government usually handles things like this by setting general standards and letting the states implement them. For example, the REAL ID Act mandated that state ID cards use certain anti-counterfeiting technologies, list specific information on the card itself (in printed and machine-readable formats), and take certain steps to verify someone's identity before issuing a card.

Regarding IDs being expensive, note that the Harvard Law report you link to was published in 2014 using data collected over several years prior. Between various court decisions and changes in law, the costs for an ID listed there are not necessarily indicative of the current situation. For example, Texas currently waives all costs associated with obtaining birth certificates and other supporting documents when requested for the purposes of obtaining an Election Identification Certificate (which is also free), and local ID offices have been opened in some of the communities the report mentions as requiring significant travel. The examples in the report have breakdowns of the cost of obtaining an ID, and the lion's share of the cost is consistently related to time spent and transportation expenses. This wouldn't necessarily be any different if the IDs were issued by the federal government instead, and several of the examples describe the applicant making multiple trips because they didn't have the correct documents with them (could have been avoided by checking the requirements via phone or web before going in). At least in the case of the Texas examples, the report cherry-picked examples regarding people living in some of the smallest, most remote counties in the state. While that in no way justifies their plight, it's a caution that the examples in the report are not necessarily representative of what the average person would experience. The report should not be considered as rigorous or authoritative as a peer-reviewed research paper. It's based on a small number of anecdotes, not a representative data set that controls for outliers and adjusts for unrelated external factors.

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    It should be pointed out that, in the US, unless you live in one of the approximately three cities with decent public transit systems, operating a vehicle is virtually a requirement to live, and hence the vast majority of adults have a driver's license.
    – dan04
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 4:14
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    @dan04 someone in your household operating a vehicle is virtually a requirement to live. Might not be you! Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 8:52
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    "Driver's licenses are necessarily state-issued documents because each state has different driving rules (age-based restrictions, "point" systems, etc)": Begging the question. The different rules exist because that's how the federal system decided it should be. Separate licenses are a byproduct of the same decision. @dan04 you ought to consider looking into how poor people actually live in the rural US. Everyone talks theoretically about what IDs people ought to have for this or that purpose, but nobody looks at what IDs people actually have or whether they achieve those purposes without them.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 9:42
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    @dan04 States all issue "state IDs" which non-drivers use for the same purpose as a driver's license (except driving). State IDs also qualify under the "Real ID" Act.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 21:24
  • Real ID cards should be the national ID card. It's seemingly a perfect fit.
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 16 at 18:34

Nobody seems to be proposing a federal level ID program for the US. I know many Americans are skeptical of their government being responsible enough to handle their data, but they probably already have some data over their citizens (how else would the states figure out if the person registering to vote actually exists?)

The civil liberties objection is not that this would help the government to collect lots of data on citizens. As you note, they already have lot more data than that, including data from mass surveillance, as revealed by Edward Snowden.

The issue on the grounds of civil liberties is that once such a government ID card becomes mandatory, it becomes a tool of government control, which can then be misused. In 1986, I flew from San Francisco to New York and back while carrying absolutely no ID in my wallet. In that era, that wasn't a problem. I got a room at a hotel in NY and so on. This may be hard to believe for people who are too young to remember 9/11, but this really wasn't a big deal at the time.

As time has gone on, it has become more and more expected that people will carry an ID card with them at all times. You can't even get on a Greyhound bus these days without one. So the idea of "ID creep" is real. Once people start accepting an invasion of their liberties in one area, it spreads to other areas.

People might object that this is not a big deal, because it wouldn't be abused. In fact, it is being massively abused in China these days, with the added technological twist that the piece of cardboard has been replaced by a cell phone. The Chinese government can exercise a huge amount of control over their people in this way.

This may be partly just a cultural thing. To Americans, "show me your papers" sounds like a line from an old movie set in Nazi Germany. But the French, for example, are perfectly OK with being required to carry documentation with them everywhere. But I don't think this American cultural preference is a bad one. We are, after all, the world's oldest continuously functioning republic. Maybe we're doing some things right.

The stuff about voting rights is an irrelevant distraction. There is not and has never been any significant amount of voting fraud in the US. There is not and has never been any significant number of voters who couldn't get an ID if it became a hard requirement.

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    This is a good answer, but as you've shown, ID creep (even creep driven by the Federal government, as in the airport case) can happen just fine with state-issued IDs. Is there reason to expect that a Federal ID would be worse?
    – divibisan
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 23:30
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    "We are, after all, the world's oldest continuously functioning republic." you forgot about San Marino (Most Serene Republic of San Marino (since 301, constitutional since 1600)) from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_republics
    – J_rite
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 14:57

Democrats argue that IDs should not be necessary to vote since there are several demographic groups in the US who cannot afford an ID.

This is an extremely misleading talking point for (at least) two major reasons.

  1. Many other things in life these days require photo ID anyway. You need it to drive. You need it to cash a check or open a bank account. You need it both to get a job and to apply for any form of welfare or unemployment benefits if you don't have a job. You need it to get married, to pick up a prescription, to buy a phone, to purchase alcohol or tobacco products, to donate blood, to enroll your kids in school... the list just goes on and on. Even members of poor demographic groups have valid ID because they need it for the ins and outs of modern life.
  2. The 24th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any form of poll tax (a fee required to be paid in order to vote) for any federal election. Because of this, every state that requires photo ID for voting must (and does) provide valid identification free of charge. Literally no one, no matter what their demographic group, is so poor that they cannot afford "free."

There isn't much call for a national ID card because there isn't a need for one. The existing system of state IDs works quite well and, politically-motivated talking points notwithstanding, is able to cover everyone who cares to obtain one.

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    Your point 1 might seem logical, but if you search "US citizen no picture ID" and things of that nature, many people function just fine without one. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 1:45
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    @OwenReynolds It supports it from a different direction: the claim I'm refuting is absurdly inconsistent, as people claiming that the requirement of ID to vote is an onerous burden only ever say that about voting. You never hear Democrats arguing that it's too difficult to obtain an ID to buy beer, for example, even though (for better or for worse) the average American does this much more frequently than they vote! Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 3:04
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    @OwenReynolds: You have to be obviously old, though. I still get carded regularly at age 38.
    – dan04
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 4:07
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    I've read that in some cities, it's only possible to get an ID during a very short time during work hours, and it might also be far away and with long queues. I don't know if it's correct, but it could be an additional burden. The ID isn't really free if you need to take a day off in order to get it. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 5:57
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    The people who are burdened by these requirements don't have bank accounts and likely work for cash, or only in the home (with money being earned by another member of the household). "no such people are forced to live that way by their circumstances or demographics": these people don't have bank accounts because they're poor. How is that not being forced to live that way because of circumstances? And the point is that it can cost $100 to $200 to get one of these "free" IDs, so it's just not that simple. Why don't we ask someone who's having difficulty getting ID how they get their beer?
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 9:26

An important and timely question. Over 25 years ago, I worked in the ICT industry, part of the government industry (serving government clients - national, state, local, globally) and the solution space around "Positive personal identity" was big. It is controversial, it is gnarly, and there are many reasons for it. The questioner is asking about America. Here is an attempt at an answer.

First, we must accept our basic system - it is Republican government, with power delineated first to the 50 states, then the federal government. The states have "ownership" and responsibility to "vital records" of birth and death certificates. They also "own" specific "personal identification cards", namely the Driver's license. After 9/11, when the US government attempted to harmonize national identity through the drivers license, there is/was a move towards "Real ID", which most, but not every state has agreed to.

In the Federal criminal code, Title 18, section 1028 around fraudulent stealing of identity, the US Federal government recognizes three forms of non-federal forms of identity: Birth Certificate (issued by a locality within a state), Driver's license (for those passing driver's test and meeting eligibility requirements (age)), and personal identity card which is in most states issued by their DMV for those citizens that do not have a driver's license.

At the federal level and in corporations, we have employee cards, we of course have passports, and not on a credential, nearly everyone uses the nationally issued Social Security #, which every American citizen is issued. For a European country like Estonia, population of ~ 1M, they do not have the same challenges of the US and they have an "e-identity" for all citizens. See - https://e-estonia.com/solutions/e-identity/id-card/

Now, what is really concerning to me is that just as the world is looking to begin rolling out Internet/Web 3.0, what device are most entities/companies/app developers looking to use for self-sovereign identification and personal control of data? The very hackable smart phone because it is ubiquitous (4B worldwide) and there is a very large app ecosystem built around this technology.

It's not an easy problem, or rather it is an easy problem if every American of every political persuasion agreed to have the US government, or some agreed-to designated entity issue a "national id card", but there are many legal, technical, cultural issues all rolled into this challenge. Voting identification is just the latest one.

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