LB on Voter Disenfranchisement

This one is by lb.

Voter ID requirement laws shall likely be relevant to the 2008 election and discussion is often very heated about the relevant issues. I decided to write up my thoughts as to the relevant issues upon which I think people on either side of the debate could agree. (This means I am explicitly excepting any discussion of race and the voting rights act from my post)

As I see it, there are two basic principled and simple stands to be taken as relates to who may vote:

(1) Every person who has a legal right to vote should be able to vote. (The system should respect the individual’s right to vote) No person should be illegally disenfranchised (his/her vote suppressed).

(2) Every person who has no legal right to vote should not be able to vote (No individual should be allowed to vote without that right) No person should commit (additive) vote fraud or cause (additive) vote fraud to be committed.

Disenfranchisement occurs when a voter’s vote is not counted. This can occur legally in some states, in some cases. A felon who has been purged from the voting rolls in a state prohibiting felons from voting, for example, is legally disenfranchised. A felon who has served time and petitioned to regain their voting rights, had that petition granted, but who is still denied the right to vote, however, would be illegally disenfranchised. The system would, in that case, have denied a legitimate voter the right to vote. A non-felon confused with a felon (perhaps due to having the same name) and denied the vote would also be illegally disenfranchised.

Vote suppression can occur in systemic manners as well. If a particular polling facility has insufficient resources and lines form, causing voters to give up their chance to vote due to pressing obligations (a job they cannot afford to lose), voters can have their votes effectively suppressed. If a polling location is particularly inconvenient to the populace, requiring a long trek via public transit across town, this could also suppress votes by depressing turnout. If voters were misdirected by mailings, calls, or individuals giving erroneous information as to polling locations, this interference (illegal as far as I know) with the election process could disenfranchise. If voters were intimidated into giving up on voting or traveling to a polling place, this would also amount to disenfranchisement.

Fraud can be perpetrated by both individuals voting and voting officials. Chicago in 1960 was widely believed to have notably altered election outcomes due to fraudulent voting, and is associated with the phrase, “Vote early, vote often.” Multiple votes cast by the same individual fraudulently on behalf of others clearly constitute fraud. An individual masquerading as another and stealing their vote (though risky, if the true individual also tries to vote) would constitute fraud. Election officials tampering with physical ballots to add or remove votes would be committing fraud at a low level. This fraud might not even be evident in a recount. Elections officials tampering to alter vote tallies would also be committing fraud. And any rigging of technology to alter outcomes, whether by a voting official, a voter, or a third party, would definitely constitute vote fraud.

Given these various concerns about disenfranchisement and fraud, various solutions have been proposed. To address the potential for individuals to perpetrate additive vote fraud, requirements of identity documentation at the time of voting have been proposed. ID requirements would enforce matching of identity against some centralized records. Voters using such ID would in most cases be validated as legitimate. (Perhaps a son could pretend to be his father, if they had the same name and the election official wasn’t aware or paying close attention.) By and large, such a system would enforce principle (2) as above. Any individual entitled to vote under law who for some reason didn’t hold a valid ID would, however, find him/herself
unable to vote. (If a state driver’s license were the required ID and that license had been confiscated due to a traffic infraction, for example.) Restrictions on cost, accessibility and type of ID acceptable would also serve to restrict the pool of voters allowed to actually vote. Thus there is a potential for this sort of system to run contrary to principle (1) in some cases.

No complex system, especially one involving humans, is foolproof or perfect. There is always a possibility of fraud and disenfranchisement. The questions each reasonable person has tend to pertain to prioritization of these problems, and the best solutions to each problem. The best solutions must also take into account any side-effects, externalities or other unexpected consequences. The best solutions, as well, must be faithful to the above principles as well as effective.

I’ve left my own opinions out of this post as best I can, trying to document everything I can recall or think of which is relevant to voter ID issues. I tend to think that, as a general rule, prioritization of problems comes from analysis of the data to determine prevalence and severity. Without saying what I think the data has shown, I’ll leave that up for discussion. (PLEASE NOTE: I said data and not anecdotes, but I’m sure anecdotes will be the first thing and most vehement examples cited)

Separately, I wrote notes up for a post on voting systems, which I can write up in the future if there is interest. It’s hopefully similarly dispassionate, as I do have a list of relevant issues, principles, and pros and cons for proposed and implemented solutions.

This one was by lb.