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Should the United States adopt voter ID cards?

The goal is to increase voter participation and lower the chances of electoral fraud. Could voter ID cards be part of the answer?


Should the United States adopt voter ID cards?

The Commission on Federal Election Reform has proposed adoption of voter ID cards in a way that would both expand voter participation and increase confidence in the electoral process.

Twenty-four states already require some form of identification, and 12 more states are considering it. We were concerned that different requirements from state to state could be a source of discrimination. That's why we recommended that states use the new driver's licenses—mandated by the "Real ID Card" Act—as a uniform standard. That law, which takes effect in 2008, mandates that state driver's licenses meet federal standards, effectively creating a national ID card.

For the approximately 12 percent of citizens who lack a driver's license, we propose that states assume responsibility for actively seeking out those citizens to register them to vote and to provide them with free IDs. It will be relatively easy to find those who are already registered, and every additional person found will mean an expansion of voter participation.

Some critics of voter IDs think the government cannot do this job, but Mexico and most poor democracies in the world have been able to register and give IDs to almost all their citizens. Surely the United States can do it too. Free photo IDs would also empower minorities, who are often charged exorbitant fees for cashing checks because they lack proper identification.

Regardless of how one views the importance of voter IDs, I hope that they do not deflect attention from the urgency of fixing our electoral system.

Jimmy Carter
Former President and co-chair of the Commission on Federal Election Reform

A photo ID requirement at the polls would do much more harm than good. Up to 10 percent of voting-age Americans (19 million people) do not have a state-issued photo ID. Many of them are young, poor, disabled, elderly, or people of color. A recent study found that among men ages 18 to 24, 36 percent of whites and 78 percent of blacks lacked a valid driver's license.

Even if states provide free voter IDs for those without driver's licenses, there would still be the financial burden of providing the underlying documentation (like a birth certificate) to obtain that "free" ID. Furthermore, absentee voters who mail in their ballots prove their identity through their signatures; it's unfair to deny voters at the polls the same opportunity.

At the same time, a photo ID requirement would prevent very few fraudulent votes. An extensive investigation in Washington State uncovered less than one fraudulent vote for every 100,000 ballots cast in the 2004 governor's race.

The U.S. already deserves a grade of "D" in voter participation. We trail most democracies in voter turnout (139th out of 172 countries); about 61 percent of our eligible citizens voted in 2004. A photo ID requirement would further depress participation and ensure that our government does not reflect the will of all Americans.

The problem with American democracy is not voters, but unnecessary registration deadlines, long lines at the polls, and other hurdles like the proposed photo ID card—all of which diminish voter participation.

Spencer Overton
Associate Professor of Law
George Washington University

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