Attorney General Eric Holder is engaged in a war against states trying to ensure the integrity of the electoral system. As he noted, “The arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate.”
While there is truth in this claim, it does not mean that felons, foreigners or those residing in cemeteries should be given the right to vote. However, Mr. Holder has used the power of his position to block Florida from purging its rolls of non-citizens or taking Texas to federal court over its photo ID requirement.
Even for the casual observer it appears as if President Obama’s reelection hinges on a substantial turn–out of his predictable constituents and as many illegal voters as possible. Holder noted, playing to a black American audience, that requirements to prove your identity before voting are the equivalent of “poll taxes” – Jim Crow laws requiring a payment to vote.
Surely Mr. Holder must know that poll taxes were outlawed with the 24th Amendment in 1964. A photo ID for voting has been upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008 as “eminently reasonable.” There is scarcely an office building in any major city that you can enter without a photo ID. Even erstwhile President Carter maintained that “all states should use their best efforts to obtain proof of citizenship before registering voters.”
Holder calls this action discriminatory and contends voter fraud is not a serious problem. The evidence offers a different interpretation. Florida officials have compiled a list of 180,000 names slated for possible removal from the voting rolls as noncitizens and at least 53,000 who voted illegally in the last election.
There is no doubt that voting represents one of the essential building blocks of this democratic republic. When we as a people vote there is the implicit belief that our collective voice is heard fairly and unequivocally. However, it is increasingly clear that the rules for insuring voter integrity in elections are not administered uniformly. After the extremely close presidential election in 2000, investigations into voting irregularities in Florida alerted the public to the possibility the outcome of a national election could be influenced through voting errors, fraud and sloppy administration.
Of course, there have been elections in the past determined by questionable actions including the presidential race in 1876 and the well advertised primary in 1960 to name two egregious examples. It has long been suggested that residence in a Chicago cemetery does not militate against voting.
After 2000 the GAO (Government Accountability Office) produced several reports for Congressional leaders on various aspects of the election process. The GAO found that “over time, our nation’s election system has evolved into 51 individual systems that in turn are administered and principally funded by more than 10,000 countries, cities, townships, and villages.” As a consequence, the system that has been guided by federal and state laws, regulations and policies is unwieldy.
Addressing this problem, Congress exercised its Constitutional authority and passed the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. According to its preamble, this act is designed: “To establish a program to provide funds to States to replace punch card voting systems, to establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of Federal elections and to otherwise provide assistance with the administration of certain Federal election laws and programs, to establish minimum election administration standards for States and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of Federal elections, and for other purposes.”
The examination of state election procedures forced states to amend voting procedures and, in an effort to reduce voter fraud, many states passed laws requiring photographic identification before voting. The rationale for photographic identification was clear: ensure that the person casting the ballot was the same registered person. Moreover, this step was designed to reduce – hopefully eliminate – one person voting multiple times in the same election and voting for others who did not cast a vote.
After the 2004 election, the GAO discovered 21 states required identification before voting. However, only five of these states had statutory provisions requiring that the identification include a photograph. And implementation of the photo identification varied from state to state. Some wanted voters to present identification at the time of registration and others at the polling place. Of course, the choice of when to present voter identification plays a critical role in combating potential fraud.
According to HAVA states are required to “implement, in a uniform and nondiscriminatory manner, a simple, uniform, official, centralized, interactive, computerized statewide voter registration list” for conducting federal elections. The states are also obliged to maintain voter registration lists by regularly removing ineligible voters and duplicate names and verifying voter information against motor vehicle licenses and Social Security numbers.
However practice and goals are not always compatible. When Iowa tried to verify its voter registration list with Social Security cards, officials discovered that SSA did not have information that could be matched against other data sources. Twenty-three states reported an inability to verify voter information against an incompatible electronic record system. Florida’s system could not verify information on the voting eligibility of felons, noncitizens, mentally incompetent or the under aged.
In 1994 Sonny Carson, an infamous community organizer, now deceased, told me he hired several buses and traveled with his cohorts to several voting districts where multiple votes were allowed or not screened in the NY State Comptroller’s race. The Village Voice reported that in three New York districts there were more votes cast than people on the voting rolls.
If the government were earnest in its effort to prevent voter fraud, a valid document of verification would be required. Therefore it is important that states insist on a reliable form of photographic identification, i.e. the identification should be accompanied by multiple collaborating documents such as a birth certificate or passport. Some states will accept a driver’s license as a valid ID, but since forgeries are readily accessible the driver’s license also requires other documented data.
Attorney General Holder contends these measures are a violation of privacy or insinuate intimidating procedures into the voting process. Some critics claim the photo ID requirement will suppress voter turnout. But in nearly all of the local elections in Kansas in 2012, where the voter ID was required, voter turnout was higher than normal. This is hardly surprising since the photo ID resulted in rapid check-in times and a relatively easy experience voting. As long as fraud can determine who is elected, as long as this democratic process is tainted by irregularities, steps should be taken to introduce valid and uniform procedures for voting across the country, notwithstanding Holder’s contentions. At the moment, many Americans are cynical about elections because of the reported instances of fraud. It is time to restore confidence in the voting system and a valid ID is the way to do it.
Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
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