Jason Marisam: Voter ID bill - a solution in search of a problem?

  • Article by: JASON MARISAM
  • Updated: January 30, 2011 - 6:01 PM

If you think about it, the kind of fraud being targeted is quite unlikely.

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A new voter ID scanning device was unveiled at the Capitol in response to a Republican bill to require a scannable state ID in order to vote. The device, produced by Datacard Group, is called the advocate precinct management system. In this photo:] The system includes a scanner, left, digital signiture pad with stylus and a computer to input voter information.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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(Note: For another view, see Jeff Davis' commentary, "Why Gov. Dayton should sign a voter ID bill."

Commentary

The Minnetonka-based Datacard Group makes some pretty nifty machines that can scan voter identification cards and upload voter data to a centralized database.

Republicans want to fight voter fraud by installing these machines in precincts throughout Minnesota and requiring poll workers to scan voters' ID cards before allowing them to cast ballots.

Perhaps the best that can be said about this proposal is that it would be a waste of the estimated $20 million needed to purchase the scanning machines.

But at least the money would be wasted in the state.

The proposal is the latest effort by Minnesota Republicans to require voters to present a state-issued, photo identification card at the polls.

With the GOP in control of the House and Senate this time around, the bill is expected to pass the Legislature and end up on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk.

Should Dayton sign the bill into law or veto it?

Republicans argue that a voter ID law is needed to eradicate voter fraud.

Democrats counter that Republicans don't care that much about voter fraud but actually like the ID law because groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as the poor and minorities, are more likely to lack a proper ID. Some of them may choose to stay home on election day, costing Democrats votes.

This partisan back-and-forth about Republicans' true motivations makes for good political theater. But there is a more important question: Would the bill actually reduce voter fraud?

Not much, the evidence suggests.

The bill is aimed only at one particular kind of voter fraud -- impersonation of a registered voter at a polling place.

Requiring photo ID makes voter impersonation more difficult. However, election law experts generally agree that voter impersonation fraud is not a significant threat to the legitimacy of elections.

To understand why fraud by voter impersonation is not a significant problem, put yourself in the shoes of a miscreant out to tilt the outcome of an election that way. What would you have to do to accomplish your goal?

First, you'd have to round up a group of people willing to violate state and federal criminal law and risk serious prison time by pledging to multiple poll workers that they are someone they are not.

Second, you'd have to shuttle your fellow fraudsters to as many precincts as you could on election day. You'd be lucky to visit more than, say, a couple dozen precincts before the polls closed.

You would have to know the names and addresses of multiple registered voters at each precinct so that your gang could claim to be these people. If your fraudulent voters gave the wrong names, they wouldn't get to cast ballots.

Worse, if they gave the names of people who had already voted that day, red flags would go up and investigations into fraud might be triggered.

Even if you managed to pull all this off without getting caught, you might only add an extra 100 or 200 votes to the column for your favorite candidate.

Because of these difficulties, it's no surprise that evidence of widespread fraud by voter impersonation at polling places is exceedingly hard to come by.

By contrast, election law experts generally agree that fraud involving absentee ballots appears to be a far more common and significant danger.

In one case, a local politician went to a Cleveland nursing home to help the physically infirm residents fill out their absentee ballots.

He was alleged to have "assisted" these elderly voters by marking their ballots for fellow Republicans.

In another case, a candidate in the Democratic primary for mayor of East Chicago was found to have arranged for his political operatives to visit the homes of dozens of absentee voters and influence how they filled in their ballots.

His scheme was so pervasive that the Indiana Supreme Court invalidated his victory.

This kind of absentee ballot fraud is easier to pull off in large numbers than widespread voter impersonation at polling places.

You don't need to rush from precinct to precinct on election day; you have time to drive around to the homes of absentee voters in the days and weeks before the election.

And because the fraud takes place in the privacy of voters' homes, the risk of being caught red-handed may be lower.

Minnesota may be in need of election reform.

But spending millions to combat voter impersonation fraud is not the way to get reform efforts started.

If legislators truly care about the legitimacy of electoral outcomes, there are far more real and pressing matters that could use their attention. If the voter ID bill ends up on Dayton's desk, he would have good reason to veto it.

Jason Marisam is a research fellow at Harvard Law School.

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