Voter ID Laws Are Solutions in Search of a Problem

Tightening voter identification requirements has the best of intentions: eliminate the possibilities of "voting early and often" by making voters present identification to use the ballot box. Proponents cite anecdotal evidence of elections influenced by voters casting multiple votes, voting out of district, or impersonating other voters whether they be dead or alive. But studies by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice indicate that the issues these laws address are a tip in the iceberg, that most errors occur once the votes have been cast. 

More serious are the unintended consequences of voter ID requirements: Those who cannot obtain the required identification are effectively disenfranchised, and measures to prevent this will dramatically increase election-related costs, in some casess doubling them. In short, voter ID proponents are advocating a solution to whose costs both in dollars and potential disenfranchisement may dramatically outweigh the benefits of catching a handful of voter impersonators, especially when existing laws and penalties make such acts foolhardy at best.


The National Conference of State Legislatures, categorizes voter ID laws into the following categories:

Strict Photo ID: Voters must identify themselves with a government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license, passport, or state identification card.

Optional Photo ID: Voters must identify themselves with a government-issued photo ID if possible but designated alternatives are acceptable.

Non-Photo ID: Voters must identify themselves with designtated means of identification that need not incorporate a photo.

Thity-two states have some form of voter ID legislation.

Nine states have strict photo ID laws. Of these, five states' laws are active. Two others have passed legislation that awaits Voting Rights Act section 5 preclearance. Mississippi requires legislation to implement the results of a voter referendum; that legislation once passed must obtain Voting Rights Act preclearance. Wisconsin is appealing Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess's ruling that its Voter ID law is unconstitutional.

Seven states have optional photo ID laws. Of these, Alabama passed stricter photo ID-only leglislation that, assuming Voting Rights Act section 5 preclearance,  will take effect in 2014.

Sixteen states have non-photo ID laws. Of these, the photo ID phase of Rhode Island's voter ID legislation will take effect in 2014.

The bar graph depicts the movement towards strict photo ID requirements by states that already have voter ID laws. It does not assume that states without such requirements will pass them, although that may well happen.

However, the rage voter ID laws might be, they are not a complete solution to obtaining accurate election results. The Brennan Center's The Truth About Voter Fraud report suggests that voter ID laws only address the issue of voter impersonation at the polling place. This is a criminal offense that if connected with a federal election is punishable by up to five years in jail, a $10,000 fine, and possible state penalties. It seems irrational to risk these consequences for one extra vote.  

The report cites significant ways in which election results can be compromised after ballots have been cast, which voter ID laws would do nothing to prevent. These include:

Clerical or typographical errors.

Errors in underlying data such as partial matches or birthdates.

Jumping to conclusions regarding address or voter status, such as if voters move without notifying the elections board or dead voters cast a ballot while alive.

Voter mistakes related to eligibility especially when relocating.

In short, cleaning up the data processing issues involved with elections would be a more productive use of election funds than issuing voter identification cards. However, that would be a far less visible approach, less obvious to the man on the street. It's far more dramatic to spend millions of dollars implementing a requirement that only addresses a small part, if any, of the voting integrity problem, even at the risk of disenfranchising those without the means or mobility to obtain either the photo IDs themselves or the supporting documentation ered required when applying. The Center for American Progress, reports that 25% of African-Americans lack satisfactory photo identification compared with 11% of the general population. Since their votes are largely Democratic, charges of using voter ID laws themselves to manipulate elections abound.

Supporters of voter ID legislation use the following arguments:

Anecdotal evidence of voter impersonation or duplicate voting.

"Sting" operations in which hidden cameras record someone's sucess in being offered another's ballot, for example that of Attorney General Eric Holder.

A Pew Center finding that 1.8 million dead voters are still on the rolls.

Polls, such as this 2009 New Mexico poll that reported 70% support for voter ID laws.

Reports that 2008 voter turnout, which was post-votier ID legislation,  in Indiana and Georagia increased as much as 400% over that of 2004, even among minorities, witheorgia reporting that only 0.1% of voters lacked proper ID.

They don't mention that other papers written as part of the joint Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project paint a different picture. Racial Differences in Election Administration by Charles Stewart III points out that states with photo ID laws only requested required identification from 87% of voters, including 85% of white voters, 96% of black voters, and 91% of Hispanic voters. States with alternative identification requirements requested required identification from 51% of voters, including 47% of white voters, 67% of black voters, and 64% of Hispanic voters. The Effect of Votequesteder Identification Laws on Turnout by R. Michael Alvarez, Delia Bailey, and Johnathan Katz reports a negative correlation between strictness of ID law and participation by registered voters of low income and educational level. Moreover, voter ID proponents never do a cost-benefit analysis; we don't know how many irregularities we would eliminate for the dramatic increases in election spending. Finally, while there is anecdotal evidence of voter impersonation there is no long-term study to indicate how the levels have changed over the years. 

Data integration would be the more productive approach to the issues voter ID claims to combat. Just like doctors are putting medical records online to allow general practioners and specialists to share data and avoid redundant tests, local, state, and federal boards of election should be able to share voter data with other agencies in the interests of consistency. This project would require constructing a database that was open enough to achieve its goal of consistency across departments but that retained the confidentiality of records citizens expect. It's a huge database design and access rights problem. But if it could be implemented, it could lead to results likesate this: A voter's death notice is filed with his or her county. The name, address, and birthdate data are compared with the voter registration rolls and the deceased voter is removed. If election procedures still required hard copies of poll and registration rolls, they would be reprinted, reflecting all such changes, and old ones removed from use before each election. (I hope that happens now.) 

If states insist on tightening voter ID requirements, they must do so in ways that protect voting rights for the poor and disadvantaged.

Required identification, including photography, must either be free for all or subsidized for low-income voters.

The Voter ID identification processess must accept nontraditional means of proving identity, such as student ID cards or pay stubs, to allow groups who lack more conventional forms of identification such as driver's licenses to obtain Voter IDs.

Voters must be able to obtain these IDs where and when they vote. States like Maine already permit voter registration at the polling place, obtaining voter IDs could be part of that process. Digital cameras and pre-printed cards should facilitate issuing of temporary IDs at the polling place.

This voter identification phenomonon is scary in a way, in that Americans are all too willing to accept another way of feeling "safe" that assumes one is guilty until he or she proves himself innocent. We endure airport searches, Type 1 and Type 2 identification checks, and increased scrutiniy of our credit history and social networking in the name of safety, whether it be for individuals or organizations. Should every state implement a photogrpahic voter ID law, we will have succeeded in creating a national identifcation system in fact if not in name. What could be next, DNA samples taken at birth or when granted legal status? RFID chip implanatation to establish our whereabouts at all times? The more we subscribe to this need to feel safe, to this culture of fear, the less free we will be, and the upshot of it all is that these measures are invariably sponsored by those who think government is too big and must reduce its role in our lives. To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "Oh what a country!"