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A Proposed Solution to Voter ID Controversy

When states are enacting the wrong type of ID requirements for voting and various branches of government are implementing many different and incompatible ID systems, the time to consider a different approach is now. Too many of the ID laws that have been enacted in the states are not benign with respect to their impact on turnout -- they unequally burden those with limited resources and mobility, and they lead to partisan outcomes. The end effect of the ongoing back-and-forth we've seen this year is to undermine citizen faith in the integrity of the electoral process as a whole, and in our democracy. It's time for a new paradigm for the conduct of American elections.
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For the majority of Republicans it is an article of faith that their electoral fortunes would best be served by rain on election day -- that, despite evidence to the contrary, the lower the turnout the better their chances of winning, or so they believe.

So, it is not surprising that it is Republican legislators, largely in Republican-controlled legislatures, that have proposed and, in some states, enacted laws that would require photo identification at polling places in order for citizens to cast their ballots. But one should take with a grain of salt the GOP claims that these laws are primarily enacted to prevent fraud when the demography of the 20 million citizens who don't have photo identification is largely composed of people who are poorer, more minority and the more immobile elderly than the rest of the population, a group whose voting history is strongly Democratic but which would have the greatest difficulty in obtaining proper identification.

It does not, however, follow as the night the day that the way for Attorney General Eric Holder, Democrats, minorities, self-named good government promoters, liberals, editorialists and others to deal with the ID issue is to mount, as they now are doing, coordinated frontal opposition to them and assert that fraud in the voting process does not exist.


  • Because the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision in an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens affirmed the constitutionality of requiring photo identification at the polls. It is settled law.

  • Because every public poll on the issue has recorded substantial majorities in favor of such IDs.
  • Because fraud is part of the election landscape, albeit a small part and only in places. But there are people who have voted twice at one polling place and people who vote have voted twice when they are registered and have residences in two states or in different parts of the same state; there are non-citizens who have voted in recent elections and citizens who have voted in the names of the dead or moved whose names have been kept on registration rolls; and Dick Tracy was registered in Ohio in 2008 and a dog was registered in Missouri in 2004. It is hard to argue that a valid and secure ID would not mitigate some of these problems, even if their occurrence is not widespread or frequent.
  • However, many of the ID laws that have been enacted in the states are not benign with respect to their impact on turnout, the unequal burden they place on those with limited resources and mobility, and on partisan outcomes. A law that requires the citizen to pay for either the ID or the necessary documentation for it or both puts a burden on those least able to afford it and amounts to a poll tax on the right to vote. Since the majority of those who now do not have photo identification are those who don't drive (or else they would have such identification), offering these IDs only at the Departments of Motor Vehicles or other remote places, as some laws do, makes it difficult for the non-driving majority to get them. These features will undermine turnout and influence result. They should be attacked and challenged, if necessary, in the courts.

    But neither requirements for photo identification at the polls nor reversing the excesses contained in those laws addresses the two fundamental flaws in the voting process:

    1. The requirement that puts the burden on citizens to qualify themselves to vote via registration and re-registration should they move. In almost every other advanced democracy, government is responsible for determining who is qualified. All the citizen need do is vote.
  • The need to keep, maintain and attempt to update lists of those registered as the primary way of protecting the integrity of the voting process and ensuring that only those qualified to vote are allowed to do so, a charge deeply imperfect in its execution despite the best efforts of those who must carry it out.
  • Because citizens must qualify themselves via registration in order to vote, many find it difficult to do so, and others with low motivation simply don't, there are an estimated 50 million citizens who are not registered and thus can't vote. Because the lists of those registered can't be maintained accurately for a variety of reasons, there are an estimated 20 million names on those rolls who ought not to be there. The first is a national disgrace; the second an invitation to potential abuse.

    But because of these two central provisions of American voting law, during each biennial national election and with increasing intensity, the nation has become witness to the spectacle of competing partisan claims: the Republicans claiming fraud and potential fraud, the Democrats claiming real and potential voter intimidation and suppression, with each party at the ready with phalanxes of poll watchers and litigators, costing millions, to protect their interests at the polling places and in court.

    Democratic claims include inaccurate and discriminatory (read: more African-Americans) removal from the registration rolls via partisan list purging; discarding Democratic registration forms by Republican-oriented deputy registration outreach organizations; intimidation at the polls by Republican poll watchers and robo-calls to Democratic and minority groups threatening dire legal consequences if one votes and is ineligible and, in at least one documented case, telling Democrats that they should vote on the day after election day. The litany of Republican charges include fraudulent registrations, non-citizens and other ineligibles voting, voting in the names of the dead and moved but still on the registration rolls, and not counting absentee votes particularly of the military and other Americans residing outside the United States who tend to vote Republican.

    Neither set of partisan claims are totally without foundation, however few instances occur each election year. But the cumulative effect of these claims as seen and heard through the megaphone of the mass media is to undermine citizen faith in the integrity of the electoral process.

    The United States needs a new paradigm for the conduct of its elections.

    To maximize potential turnout, to eliminate virtually all possibility of electoral fraud, to make it profoundly easier for citizens to cast their ballots and to restore citizen faith in the integrity of the election process, the United States needs to adopt a mandatory, government-provided, distributed and paid for biometric identification card and system. Under such a system, every citizen (including the 50 million who are now unregistered) would be automatically enfranchised. There would be no invalid names on registration lists. With the exception of vote buying and election official chicanery, electoral fraud would cease to exist. On election day, in order to vote, all the citizen would need do is show up at the polls, have their ID card and biometric scanned and matched. Unlike the newly minted state ID requirements which will likely diminish participation, this system would enhance it. It has been implemented with great success in Mexico and is about to be put into operation in India.

    The principal objections to such a system are cost and fear of its abuse to invade citizens' privacy.

    An estimate of the upfront cost of such a system (an estimate that I was involved in ascertaining for the Carter/Baker commission on electoral reform) -- in producing the cards, getting the biometrics from every person, universally distributing the cards, providing card readers and enforcement -- is $14 billion. The figure may seem a small fraction of budget of more than $1.4 trillion, but historically Congress has never appropriated anything close to that percentage of the budget for improvement of the electoral system.

    It has, however, provided many times that percentage for national defense and homeland security, and it would seem that such a biometric ID and system would provide the sine-qua-non for national and homeland defense knowing who is in the country and who is coming and going to and from it.

    If such a system were created, it would have many other constructive uses, including but not limited to:

    • A better way of dealing with immigration -- in sorting out who should be sent home, who should be in the United States on temporary work permits and who should be on a citizenship track.

  • An accurate national census without the need for costly in-person enumeration.
  • Enhanced and more accurate criminal prosecution and wrongful conviction exoneration.
  • Reduction and even, perhaps ultimately, eventual elimination of identity theft.
  • A secure repository for individual medical records.
  • Such a card could also serve as one's driver's license and automobile registration, social security and Medicare card, selective service registration, secure home and automobile keys and, perhaps, as in Mexico, one's unique and protected credit card(s). It would also serve to make compatible and interoperable the many identification systems in place and mandated, none of which are compatible presently.

    This system, despite its hefty upfront costs, would also provide some lasting savings: eliminating Census enumeration, substantially reducing election administration costs, ending successive and costly launches of non-interoperable ID systems, providing a more effective and less pricey way to deal with immigration and law enforcement issues, lessening the economic drag caused by identity theft and eliminating the army of election day litigants, to name a few.

    But, for some, the issue of potential invasion of privacy outweighs all the many potential benefits of such a system. Their concerns can, in the real world, only partially be answered. Thanks to the Internet and other sophisticated forms of technology, Americans have little privacy left. If a biometric ID card and system were adopted, it would not substantially erode what privacy remains, and there would be ways of mitigating citizen concerns:

    For all uses, except national defense, homeland security and law enforcement, it is possible for the readers of the IDs to be programmed in such a way as too take only the information for that particular use. For instance, with respect to voting card readers could be programmed to be able to read only the name, age, citizenship, address and, in states with partisan registration, party affiliation.

    On the other hand, law enforcement and homeland defense agencies would not have such technological or political limitations on the information they gather. They could, however, have statutory limitations on its use and criminal penalties for exceeding those strictures. In addition, an independent ombudsman=s office could be created to handle complaints about abuse, and perhaps a special court to adjudicate such disputes and mete out the appropriate punishments, if needed, could also be established.

    Nothing of this magnitude is likely to be enacted until it has been thoroughly vetted by a high-level, bipartisan leadership commission with distinguished representation from each aspect of society that would be affected by such a change. Such a commission would need to explore the desirability, feasibility, applicability, interoperability, implementation and cost of such a system, along with the best ways to protect against abuse of the information gathered.

    But the positive potential of such a system is very high and its potential downside risk very low. At a time when states are enacting the wrong type of ID requirements for voting and various branches of government are implementing many different and incompatible ID systems, the time to consider a different approach and new paradigm is now.

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