We should want to encourage people to vote by removing obstacles that make the process expensive or time consuming. On the other hand, we want to minimize the chances of election fraud. These two goals are sometimes in conflict.
An example of this conflict is the recent drive to require a government-issued photo identification to vote in person. More than a dozen states, including North Carolina, have enacted such requirements.
Middle-class voters are so used to having a driver’s license or other photo ID for daily living that they cannot imagine that some people don’t have a photo ID and would have difficulty obtaining one. Reliable testimony in federal court has demonstrated, however, that there are a large number of such voters in North Carolina and elsewhere, and minority voters are concentrated in that category.
The evidence presented in numerous court cases establishes that impersonation fraud is extremely rare or nonexistent. The impersonator risks being caught committing a felony and gains only one vote for a preferred candidate or party. It is simply not worth the risk. Concern about impersonation fraud draws attention away from where real and substantial fraud is likely to exist – corruption of election officials and the absentee ballot process.
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While I do not believe that photo ID laws are justified, there is a way to implement such a requirement without significantly denying anyone’s right to vote or discouraging voter turnout in general. If Republican legislators in the N.C. General Assembly are really interested in ballot security and do not wish to prevent minorities from voting, then they should advocate this common ground position.
First, the law should allow a wide range of photo ID to be used to vote. Second, those who register to vote at election offices or at the DMV should be issued, free of charge, a photo ID for voting if they do not already have one of the recognized ID cards. And the necessary documentation to obtain the ID should not be restrictive; some elderly voters cannot obtain a birth certificate. But many people register to vote online or by mail or during registration drives, and there are millions of previously registered voters who do not have a photo ID. Therefore, third, every early voting site and voting place on the day of the election should be equipped with a digital camera. When a voter comes in to vote and does not have a photo ID, the election officials would take their picture but then allow them to vote. After the election, the state would then use the photo to make a “for voting only” ID card and mail it to the address of the voter.
Notice the advantages of this system. First, impersonation voting is further discouraged. How many potential felons would risk having their picture taken in the act? Second, we would have a record of impersonation voting. When the impersonated voter gets the new ID card in the mail, he or she could report the fraud to the authorities. Third, the cost of this is minimal. Digital cameras are cheap.
The inconvenience of being photographed should not be dismissed as meaningless. But it is less of a deterrent to voting than any other way to accommodate the demands of those who profess to be concerned about voter impersonation fraud but profess not to wish to discriminate against any class of voters.
Ted Arrington is emeritus professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He served for 12 years on the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Board of Elections, 6 years as its chair. He was an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice in the challenge to the South Carolina photo ID law.