Sunday, August 26, 2012

Voter ID Laws.

From continental Europe, the hot topic of voter ID laws (i.a. laws that require a photo identification to vote)  in this presidential campaign seems like a very strange controversy.

Even though, this topic is not much covered in the European media, I bet most Europeans would be surprised, "You mean people can to the poll and vote without ID in the U.S.?". Simply, "yes!".

Of course, most European countries have long had some form of national identification, it be a formal ID Card or an alternative proof of identity, such as a driver's licence. This identification seems particularly useful when you need to prove you're the right person registered to vote.

So the United States is a bit of an oddity in this respect, along with, (surprise!), the United Kingdom -two countries where there is no true identify card issued by the government, other than a passport (and most Americans have never had one). (see the list of identity card policy by country here)

So how does it work exactly when you want to vote in the U.S.?

First you need to register  and you do so by filling a Voter Registration Application and then it varies state by state. In most cases, if you don't have a driver's license, you can use your social security number. In the United States, the one thing you don't to lose is your social security number, which has de facto become a national identification number.  On election day, depending which state you live in, you will be asked some proof of your identity but not necessarily with a photo. For instance in Ohio, you can also show
  • An original or copy of a current utility bill; or
  • An original or copy of a current bank statement; or
  • An original or copy of a current government check; or
  • An original or copy of a current paycheck; or
  • An original or copy of a current other government document. (source here).
In other states, like Minnesota, you can also register  at your polling place on Election Day. Here's what the North Star state requires :
  • A valid Minnesota driver’s license, learner’s permit, Minnesota ID card, or receipt for any of these
  • A valid student ID card including your photo, if your college has provided a student housing list to election officials
  • A Tribal ID card that contains your picture and signature 
  • A valid registration in the same precinct under a different name or address 
  • A notice of late registration sent to you by your county auditor or city clerk
  • A voter registered in the same precinct as you who can confirm your address with a signed oath
  • An employee of the residential facility where you live who can confirm your address with a signed oath
  • Both 1) a photo ID from the list below, and 2) a current bill from the list below with your current name and address in the precinct must provide. (Source here)
I find it interesting that you may have a "voter registered in the same precinct as you confirm your address with a signed oath" or "An employee of the residential facility where you live who can confirm your address with a signed oath." According to my Minnesotan friend, this is in part a relic from the past when, in rural areas and small towns, people all knew each other, and there was no better way to know someone's identity.

Now of course, these requirements could hardly prevent fraud. At at the same time, fraud would have to be on such a massive scale to impact an election that it would require a powerful organization. And despite wat some Republicans claim, and this is the core of the debate, there is no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections. Most cases have actually involved people making mistakes more than anything else. (NYTimes)

The current controversy is that ID laws to vote amount de facto to a poll tax, since access to the poll would then be pre-conditioned to having a photo ID that costs money. Interestingly, it is estimated that about 11% of registered voters lack government-issued ID (that's a good 21 million voters). Those do not even have a drivers licence and don't fly or go abroad are usually found among the elderly, the minorities and students... (like in this example)... pretty much the same ones you see take the bus... and tend to vote for Obama.
No wonder the Democrats feel like they may be cheated of their electorate, and in case you had doubt, Pa. House Republican Leader Mike Turzai made it very clear this is a deliberate strategy to win the elections:

Of course on possible solution would be to require states to provide free voter IDs for those without a driver's licence. It is the case in France and Germany for instance, and, other than the pictures, you can also get for free the underlying documentation, like a birth certificate. (Of course, then one could ask about absentee voters...).


Until recently, the idea of a national ID was seen as a "trademark of totalitarianism" in the United States, and ironically, the more conservatives Americans are, the more sensitive they tend to be to the power of government. This may seem a bit far fetched, when you're used to centralized governments, but on the other hand, if you look into the history of the identity card, say in France, you'll see that the carte d'identité was first introduced and made compulsory for adults by the Vichy government in 1940 - not exactly the paragon of a Democratic government. Then, when the Vichy Régime fell, it turned out to be so practical for law enforcement that it stayed, although it is now non-compulsory (but widely used).
Of course, in the age of social networks, wiretapping, and terrorism laws that infringe on personal freedom, it seems there would be better ways for a modern government to control its citizens anyway, and this concern may be slightly outdated.

Another irony - and frankly I'm surprised the Democrats have missed this in the debate - is the boom of fake IDs, thanks in part to technology, to age drinking in the U.S. which has made fake IDs more profitable but also to states "phasing out licences with magnetic strips in favour of cheaper ones with bar codes". (The Economist):
The business of forged identity cards is booming, particularly in the Anglosphere. A study in 2009 of American university students found that 17% of freshmen and 32% of seniors owned a false ID. Today the numbers are even higher, experts reckon. Bars near American campuses have started to ask for two kinds of identification.
It seems to me, but this would require further investigation, that the lack of national ID and the importance of non-photo IDs like the social security number makes Americans more vulnerable to identity theft.

So national IDs may be a good idea (not pun intended), but not right now, and not this way. The move of the Republicans is bad politics with a cynical twist uncommon in the United States. What may prevent some of those laws from taking effect though may be the cost which ranges from $720,000 to more than $10m in providing voter IDs. This leaves Republican governors arguing for a new, costly government programme of questionable utility in straitened fiscal times.

In any case, making it more complicated to vote in a country that already has one of the lowest turnout in Western democracies and virtually no fraud does not seem very democratic.

In the mean time, this whole controversy has at least the merit of offering us another opportunity to further our cross-cultural analysis of France and the United States.

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