Photo ID Requirement Compromises Voter Rights

And it won't solve the problems of voter fraud and misconduct.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

The national Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, had a good opportunity to examine the systemic problems facing the American electoral system.

Unfortunately, the commission failed to live up to its mission by refusing to objectively analyze all of the available evidence. The result is a mixed bag, with the recommendations that will buttress confidence in American elections being overshadowed by provisions that will lead to widespread and unnecessary disenfranchisement.

The recommendation that most suffers from the commission's fatal methodological flaws is the proposal that all voters present a nationally uniform driver's license, the REAL ID card, in order to vote. Requiring universal government-issued photo IDs at the polls is a modern day poll tax and will not solve the problems of fraud and misconduct that occasionally plague our electoral system.

The Carter-Ford commission of 2001 on federal election reform pointed out that an estimated 6 percent to 10 percent of voting-age Americans do not possess a driver's license or a state-issued photo ID.

The citizens who do not have photo identification are mostly poor, minority, elderly, disabled and young voters.

This is largely the case because these voters cannot afford the requisite fees for obtaining photo IDs, and they are less likely than other voters to own a car or regularly drive.

Case in point, a June 2005 University of Wisconsin study found that less than half of Milwaukee African-American and Hispanic adults have valid licenses compared to 85 percent of white adults who live outside Milwaukee who have licenses.

The disenfranchising effect of the commission's photo ID proposal is made worse by the fact that it will not solve any real problems. The ID proposal is purportedly intended to prevent fraud by voters who misrepresent their identity at the polls. In fact, the evidence shows that the incidence of this type of fraud is extraordinarily small.

Despite the report's use of the 2004 Washington state election as evidence to support the ID provision, after lawyers in that state searched furiously for fraudulent votes because of the litigation surrounding the gubernatorial race, only six cases of alleged double voting were found.

Similarly, in Ohio, a statewide survey found that of the more than 9 million votes cast in that state's 2002 and 2004 general elections combined, a total of four were found by the Board of Elections and county prosecutors to be legally actionable.

The commission's recommendation on provisional ballots—simply that there be uniform counting standards—is flawed because it falls fatally short by failing to give any guidance as to what those standards should be.

It's critical that states clarify what standard applies when a voter casts a ballot in the wrong polling place or precinct but in the correct jurisdiction. The vote cast should count for those races in which the voter was eligible (e.g., presidential and senatorial).

It is clear that voters not knowing where to vote is a major nationwide problem. The Election Protection Hotline received more than 100,000 phone calls from people trying to find out where they were supposed to vote. That level of administrative failure should not result in disenfranchisement.

The report does have several recommendations that may contribute positively to the dialogue on election reform.

For example, the recommendation that nonpartisan officials administer elections is an area deserving of more attention. While we need to know more about how partisanship affects election administration, the American people are certainly suspicious.

The report's recommendations and ideas about voter information, poll workers, polling places, security of voting systems, and investigation and prosecution of election fraud are also all worthy of consideration.

It is unfortunate that these very promising reforms lie buried beneath ideas that will deny many voters their rights.