Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Voter ID Law Is Bad for Democracy

For the second time in a week, I came across an opinion in The Indianapolis Star with which I agreed. Will wonders never cease? Anyway, take a moment and read Marie Cocco's essay "Indiana's law tests high court". On its face, the voter ID law sounds like a good idea; however, like many other laws, once one begins to dig a bit deeper the good idea breaks down.

First (and most critical) is the undisputed fact that no evidence of voter fraud has been presented to the courts and certainly no evidence of voter fraud that would be prevented by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls. If instances of voter fraud were rampant and the fraud could be stopped via the use of a photo ID, then the law might be seen in a more beneficial light. But when there hasn't been any fraud, what is the real purpose of the law? Proponents say that the law is to prevent (the non-existent) fraud. Yet think about what they are really saying is happening. Someone (lots of people?) are going to polling places, pretending to be someone that they are not, signing a voting log (and forging the real person's signature), and then voting. And, of course, this whole scheme breaks down if the real person shows up to vote. How likely is this scenario? And how many people are we willing to disenfranchise to stop this unlikely scenario?

It is also critical to note that Indiana's voter ID law does not apply to voting by absentee ballot. A voter can get an absentee ballot without a photo ID. Why are two types of voters treated differently? And consider how much easier it would be to engage in a voting fraud scheme with an absentee ballot. I can envision a scheme in which an unscrupulous political hack offers people a few dollars for their ballot. Who would ever know? That seems like a much more likely opportunity for voter fraud than showing up in person at the polling place on election day. Don't forget that many polling places have a sheriff present during all or part of the day; it would only take one polling official that knew the real voter to bring the fraud scheme to a crashing halt.

This morning, I heard an interview with Todd Rokita, Indiana's Secretary of State, in which he claimed that a legitimate purpose of the voter ID law was to prevent identity theft. First, I'm not sure how an identity could be stolen at the voting booth. Second, I don't recall hearing this reason during the legislative debates on the issue. And finally, if identity theft is such a problem (and it clearly is), then shouldn't Secretary of State Rokita support other measures that would reduce the opportunity and need for identity theft? I'm pretty sure that Mr. Rokita would oppose giving drivers licenses to illegal aliens, yet clearly the need for licenses is a reason for identity theft. Just recently, I was concerned that a client's identity might be subject to theft and learned, to my dismay, how difficult the state made the process of obtaining a new driver's license number to stop the potential theft.; unfortunately, I discovered that the process to get a new driver's license number for the client could take weeks and might even involve a hearing! It doesn't sound like preventing identity theft is really that important to the State of Indiana.

For that matter, if an ineligible person wants to vote so badly so as to engage in fraud, how will the voter ID law help? Won't that person simply register to vote using a false identity and then show that false identity ID when voting?

It seems to me that the real problems are with the voter registration rolls, not with who shows up to vote. If Indiana wants to cut down on the possibility of voter fraud, then we should look at ways of preventing a person from voting in two different precincts.

It has also been suggested that using a photo ID is a standard part of modern existence. Examples cited include flying on an airplane or renting a video. However, the advocates who rely on those examples miss an absolutely critical concept: Neither flying nor renting a video are core concepts of our democratic process that are protected by and enshrined in the Constitution. Flying and video rentals are "optional" whereas voting is an absolute core right of every citizen in a democracy. We should make it as easy as possible for each citizen to exercise his or her core constitutional rights.

Some who have not given the law much thought ask the reasonable question: "Why don't people simply get a photo ID?" There are several answers. First, getting a photo ID is not always that simple. Try it sometime (but leave your driver's license at home). First, you will probably need your birth certificate. Do you have one? If not, it can sometimes take some effort (and expense) to get it. And if your name is different now (e.g., you got married), then it becomes much more difficult. Also, many people may have difficulty getting to the BMV (or whatever other office will issue a photo ID). The BMV office is about 5 miles from my house and my community has absolutely no public transportation. If I didn't have a car, I would have to rely upon someone else taking me to the BMV. That may be easy for me, but consider a disabled (but competent) person living in a nursing home or a single mother who works two jobs just to make ends meet (and who doesn't have a car). For those people, obtaining a photo ID can be very difficult, potentially costly, and certainly time consuming. Some of Indiana's less populated counties have even had the BMV offices consolidated, such that a person seeking an ID might have to travel a fairly substantial distance (at least by Indiana standards) to get to an office from which a photo ID could be obtained.

Compare the voter ID law to the old "reading tests" that were administered in the South. On one hand, requiring voters to be able to read seems to be intuitive. However, when one considers both how the law was applied and that the reason for the law was to disenfranchise rather than have a better educated electorate, then the basis for the reading tests falls apart. Similarly, the requirement of a photo ID to stop non-existent voter fraud when easier methods of committing such fraud are not prevented by the photo ID requirement, calls into question the motives of the proponents of the law.

I also question adding roadblocks to voting when we live in an age when so few people vote. Shouldn't we be looking for ways to encourage more people to vote? Right now, in Indiana, polls are open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. Why not keep them open much later (as many other states do)? Could it be because people who are more likely to vote later at night are the less well-off in society and (one might speculate) would be more likely to vote for Democrats?

Which brings us to the real issue. It is worth noting that in virtually every instance in which restrictive laws relating to voting have been passed, they have been supported primarily by Republicans. Are we to take from this that only Republicans fear voter fraud and Democrats aren't worried by it (or, as some Republicans suggest, encourage voter fraud)? Or, should we take from this the notion that Republicans are looking for ways to cut down on voter turnout among groups that are predisposed in favor of Democrats (or against Republicans). Perhaps if Republicans showed an interest in making all voting access equal and available, I'd be less cynical. But when absentee ballots are omitted from the law and when other voting access issues are considered, I have a hard time believing that the voter ID law serves any purpose other than keeping some putative Democrats from voting.

Americans love to talk about living in a democracy and how democracy is the greatest system of government yet developed. Yet when some Americans see the ebb and tide of public support moving away from their position, they become somewhat less enchanted with democracy and look for ways to prevent those competing ideas from gaining ground. In this case, it is the Republicans who are working to keep their positions in the fore by potentially disenfranchising others. That is not how democracy is supposed to work; that is not America. Unfortunately, it is Indiana.

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