My Thoughts on Voter ID


Principles at stake

In principle, making sure people who vote are eligible to vote is important. The right to self-governance means those who are governed should be able to select their representatives. If people who are not eligible can vote, that dilutes the power of their vote. Equally, if not more important, is that people who are eligible to vote are able to vote if they so choose. It is one thing to dilute someone’s influence, quite another to take it away entirely.

So we have something of a balancing act. We want to make sure people can vote, and we want to make sure that people who should not be voting don’t vote. That is provided you care more about the principles of the vote than you do about who wins. I certainly do. I want our elections to be fair more than I want any given election to go my way. Of course, not everyone feels that way and there are always attempts being made to tilt the scales one way or another beyond the honest act of trying to persuade voters to select your candidate of choice.

Voting Laws

Every state has their own set of laws for identifying voters. The most common practice is that when you register to vote, you must prove who you are and where you live using identification. Once you have done so, then you are eligible to vote in the elections for that location until such time as you need to renew your registration or change your address. If you do an absentee ballot, it is mailed to your address. If you go to a polling place, then you must sigh in so the staff can ensure you are eligible to cast a ballot there and to see that you have not already voted.

Recently, the right has been pushing hard for Voter ID laws that require you to present your identification when you show up to the polls. The idea is that some people who show up to the polls are not who they claim to be and this will help catch them. The most common claims are that someone would show up to impersonate a deceased person who is still registered to vote. This kind of event is very rare but it does happen. In 2016 at least four individuals nation wide were found to have tried to lie about who they were. One claimed he was just “testing the integrity” of the voting system. Apparently it passed the test and he was charged with voter fraud.

The problem with these laws is they can limit the ability of legitimate voters to cast votes. Life is full of surprises and it is possible that you find yourself without ID for one reason or another on voting day. It could be as simple as having your wallet stolen that day. For others, it is a larger struggle in getting any kind of ID because they don’t have a good birth certificate, the foundation of most ID systems in the US. Presumably some of these folks would not be able to register to vote either making the question moot in regards to ID laws, but in some cases the registration laws are less stringent or their ID has gone missing since their registration. I have not seen good numbers on how many people such ID laws would disenfranchise.

The lines of battle

Support and opposition to voter ID laws seem to fall down partisan lines in the US with republicans in favor and democrats against them. Presumably the republicans are helped by these laws as they limit poor and minority voters more than affluent ones who are far more likely to have ID and can afford to get it when the procedure is costly. Some claim that Democrats exploit the lax laws by encouraging illegal immigrants to vote, but there is little hard evidence for these claims. Democrats claim they are fighting for those citizens who would wrongly be denied the chance to vote by these laws. Both sides have a principle they are fighting for, and both have lined up on the side of the isle they think favors them in terms of vote counts.

Those fighting against them highlight the challenges the poor and rural voters face in obtaining ID and being informed about the changes to the law. They also point to the very limited examples of fraud, and statements by republicans showing their real motivation is to gain a political advantage. Those fighting for it cite those instances that are known, as well as pointing to the fact that there could be many unknown instances due to the state of voter registration roles and the lack of an ID law to catch these fraudulent voters. They respond to the difficulty of obtaining ID by noting that if you don’t have such ID voting is probably not your biggest concern, and that if voting matters to you, these obstacles are probably something you can mange to overcome.

My judgement of the arguments

I agree with both sides to some extent. I do think that these laws are politically motivated attempts to consolidate power by Republicans. That said, I think their constituents support these laws based on a reasonable principle that only eligible voters should be allowed to vote. I also think that for those who have significant obstacles in getting photo ID, it is unlikely they could register in the first place so their concern is a more fundamental one. I think that for those who could register, the extra work of getting a photo ID is indeed something they should be able to accomplish, or if they cannot, get help in doing so. I also agree that the evidence that this kind of impersonation fraud is a problem is minuscule.

It is hard to judge whether or not voter ID would disenfranchise more people than it would catch commuting fraud. I would guess that it would, but it is a pretty sketchy guess based on the very limited evidence for such fraud. Even if it did, someone determined to do this could get a fake ID. They are not especially hard to come by. Because I think losing your right to vote is much more impact than having it be slightly diluted by a single person commuting fraud, I come down on the side of thinking such laws would do more harm than good. Though I am not convinced the harm is on truly epic scale, or that it would not be possible to counteract it with an effort to ensure registered voters can have valid ID on voting day.

That said, voting is an area where pragmatism is sometimes less important than an individual right and a principle. It is after all the fundamental cornerstone of our political system. Thus we should really do what we can to ensure voting works for Americans all around.

What I think we should do

On balance I don’t support polling place voter ID laws. I do support the principle that people should prove who they are to vote. I think that the voter registration process is the proper place to do that. States should have a reasonable standard for establishing your ID and residence when you register. Registration should be renewed periodically and in cases when someone moves, or changes their name. There are clear advantages of doing it this way rather than at the polls. Firstly, people have more time to make the arrangements they need to get their ID in order. Secondly, it avoids issues such as loosing your wallet on election day. Thirdly, it allows more time for officials to validate peoples ID and ensure it is not fraudulent or to resolve any errors that come up. Finally, it saves time on election day compared to voter ID schemes.

We should also make efforts to ensure our registration rolls are accurate and well maintained. A common complain is that deceased people stay on the rolls. If we are serious about avoiding people using those registrations we should invest more in corroborating the deceased with the voter registration system. We should also have inter-state communication so that when someone moves, their old registration is deactivated when they register in a new location.

We should also have programs to help the disadvantaged get ID. Ideally it would be part of registration. If you don’t have what you need and need either financial, legal, or other assistance to get ID then the state should offer reasonable help in those areas. In states where they shamefully refused to offer this kind of assistance, other private groups should step in and assist them. Some of this already happens. For people who struggle to get IDs we may need to relax some of the requirements. Ultimately it should not be significantly harder to get a valid ID than it is to create a fake one. We should think of basic identification as a right of citizens and recognize that some people find themselves in situations where it is very difficult to establish ID. (That link is to a great Radio Lab story of a young woman who’s parents didn’t believe in birth certificates. It’s a great listen.)

Finally, and this is not directly related to ID or fraud, states should be serious about ensuring everyone gets a chance to vote by adequately funding the election and polling process. It is the single most important aspect of our democracy and it is utterly shameful when local governments slash the number of poling places and effectively deprive access to their constituents. Especially when it clearly targets rural, poor, and minority voters. Ensuring fair and accessible elections should be the first priority of any government entity in the US and we as voters should demand it.

PS: No gerrymandering!


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