Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Pointless voter ID laws?

Walter Dellinger and Sri Srinivasan had a nice analysis yesterday in of the inefficacy of voter identification laws--requirements that people show poll workers a valid government-provided ID before being allowed to vote. The principal argument in favor of these provisions is that they cut down on voter fraud and thereby increase the integrity of the electoral process. The primary argument against the provisions is that they impose burdens on voters, especially low-income and elderly voters, which reduces participation and representation in elections. Republicans tend to favor the laws, while Democrats tend to oppose them.

If we can move past the purely self-serving aspects of these provisions, the arguments essentially come down to a cost-benefit analysis. Proponents claim that there are large potential benefits in terms of reduced voter fraud and only small costs because IDs are so ubiquitous. Opponents claims that voter fraud is negligible and that the laws disenfranchise tens of millions of people who lack IDs. What Dellinger and Srinivasan bring to this debate is a nice discussion of the mechanics of these procedures and thus of the marginal impacts.

To impersonate a registered voter, an impostor would have to already know the voter's name and address and provide these details to a poll worker. Poll workers could further ask the person for the registrant's birth date (states require this data to verify that the person is actually old enough to vote). This creates a very high informational hurdle for a potential impostor.

In addition to these informational barriers, there are a couple of other practical issues. Most importantly, there are laws and penalties against voter fraud, so the impostor would need to take steps to avoid detection. For example, he or she would need to be sure that the actual voter had not already shown up at the polls and cast a ballot, otherwise the fraud would immediately be discovered. Along these same lines, there are limits on the number of times that a single individual could commit this crime (it's not like he or she could immediately get back in the queue at the same precinct and pretend to be someone else). Finally, as mentioned above, the impostor would have to have a fairly sharp mind, needing to commit all of the victim's personal details to memory (a person who needs to consult a cheat-sheet before providing basic identifying information tends to rouse suspicion).

To be sure, forms of reliable, current identification are needed in other circumstances, including the initial registration process and certainly in the case of same-, or election-day registration (North Carolina has such a procedure). However, once registration has taken place, a subsequent requirement to produce a valid government ID does almost nothing to stop fraud and therefore confers little benefit.

Given that IDs are required at the time of registration, one might claim that there also is little cost of an election day ID requirement, but this overlooks the fact that considerable time can pass between the registration and election days. During this span, people could lose their driving privileges, or especially in the case of the elderly, could simply let their licenses lapse. These people would clearly be disadvantaged by a voter-ID provision. Also, while it might be worthwhile to bring an alternative form of ID, such as a passport, one time to the registration office, it would be more costly to dig these same documents out every election day. Finally, even if one buys into the argument that the costs are low, this hardly justifies enacting a law with such little practical benefit.

Republicans regularly complain about "feel good" legislation that sounds nice but accomplishes little. That criticism applies in spades to voter-ID laws.


Roch101 said...

While I find myself generally opposed to having to produce an ID to vote, for many of the reasons you cite, I think you may be mistaken about having to show ID when registering. Unless the law has changed, I'm pretty sure that something like a utility bill with one's name and address will suffice to register to vote.

Roch101 said...

I double-checked, prompted by my recollection of registering voters door-to-door two years ago and having to get only a signature. The only time an ID is required to register to vote is when doing so by mail, than a photocopy must be provided.

Roch101 said...

Er, check that. Essentially, an ID is required unless one doesn't have one, then other documents will suffice.

Dave Ribar said...


Thanks for catching this. The post should have been clearer that IDs "are needed" for registration in the normative sense (i.e., states should require this) rather than the positive sense (i.e., states actually require this).

NC has some "interesting" requirements regarding alternative forms of ID for registration. Doug Clark had a good discussion of this a couple of months back.

Roch101 said...

Ah, I see, Dave. I did misread that.

jwg said...

Only if the birthdate is verified is there a slightly higher information hurdle for an imposter:

You'd be surprised at what people post online.

Dave Ribar said...


Thanks. As much as I work with public records, I should have seen this coming :).

One blessing in all of this is that I am almost always at the polls shortly after they are open.


Anonymous said...

Hell I think we are to let everyone vote 2-100 times. Who gives a damn if every illegal votes. I sure you are aware that a estimated 40,000 illegals voted in the last presidential election in NC. I have registered 100s of people door to door, fill out a card, sign and vote. This is the exact reason we have so much corruption in Raleigh, our professors are more interested in getting democrats elected, than have sound government.I have to have a permit to drive why should I not have a permit to vote? What the hell are you scared of, you want get enough liberals in Raleigh.

Bubba said...

"Poll workers could further ask the person for the registrant's birth date (states require this data to verify that the person is actually old enough to vote)."

This has never happened in the 15 plus years I've been in North Carolina.

It is MUCH easier to to becomr registered, and it is MUCH easier to impersonate a legitimate registered voter at the polls than you suggest.

The objections you pose to these requirements strike me as petty and a stretch. The protestations of those who would characterize these requirements as something sinister is rooted in a political/social agenda, and has no basis for being a determining factor in establishing an important public policy.

We are required to produce IDs in normal, routine matters of daily life to prove we are entitled to certain mundane things, including cashing a check, using a credit card, and renting a movie.

Why would we require less of a standard to safeguard what is very likely the most important of our liberties?

Bubba said...

John Fund is right on target here on the voter ID case that the Supreme Court.

"But U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker, who first upheld Indiana's photo ID law in 2006, cited a state study that found 99% of the voting-age population had the necessary photo ID. Judge Barker also noted that Indiana provided a photo ID for free to anyone who could prove their identity, and that critics of the law 'have produced not a single piece of evidence of any identifiable registered voter who would be prevented from voting.'

Since then, liberal groups have pointed to last November's mayoral election in Indianapolis as giving real-life examples of people prevented from voting. The 34 voters out of 165,000 who didn't have the proper ID were allowed to cast a provisional ballot, and could have had their votes counted by going to a clerk's office within 10 days to show ID or sign an affidavit attesting to their identity. Two chose to do so, but 32 did not."

"But Indiana officials make the obvious point that, without a photo ID requirement, in-person fraud is 'nearly impossible to detect or investigate.' A grand jury report prepared by then-Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman in the 1980s revealed how difficult it is to catch perpetrators.

It detailed a massive, 14-year conspiracy in which crews of individuals were recruited to go to polling places and vote in the names of fraudulently registered voters, dead voters, and voters who had moved. 'The ease and boldness with which these fraudulent schemes were carried out shows the vulnerability of our entire electoral process to unscrupulous and fraudulent misrepresentation," the report concluded.'

Indeed, a new study by Jeffrey Milyo of the Truman Institute of Public Policy on Indiana's voter turnout in 2006 did not find evidence that counties with more poor, elderly or minority voters had 'any reduction in voter turnout relative to other counties.'"

It's pretty clear that the requirement for adequate ID is not the noxious burden some would portray it, and further, it's clear there is a need for such a procedure to adequately ensure the integrity of the process.

Dave Ribar said...


Indiana could not document a single case where someone had impersonated a existing registered voter, which is all that this law addresses. You and Fund say this would be hard to detect, but such fraud would be immediately detected if an actual voter and an impostor showed up at the same precinct.

The provisional ballot procedure that you describe is laughably complex (vote and come back to a government office several days later after procuring a valid ID?).

At some point it would be worthwhile to have a discussion about voter registration procedures. However, requiring an ID at the time that someone votes has not been shown to reduce fraud one iota. That is, it has no benefit.

Bubba said...

"That is, it has no benefit."

The benefit has been clearly established, and this week's SCOTUS decision supports that.

"For a second time this week, a liberal challenge to a disputed state law floundered in the Supreme Court because lawyers could not show hard evidence that anyone had been harmed by the statute."

From my personal experience as an election observer in the 2004 election, I can personally attest to the fact that valid voter ID at the polls is an effective way to cut down on vote fraud.

Parse it any way you want, but you won't change the facts.


Meanwhile, here's the ID law that you might have better luck in opposing.

Bubba said...

Hey Dave, is this you, from the comments in the first LAT link?

"6. Of course - this is the supreme court that appointed the Bush regime into power. This is the next step towards installing the regime, one that now uses torture as official govt policy. Have we had a legitimate since 2000? Only Diebold knows for sure.
Submitted by: Dr. Dave
6:06 AM PST, January 10, 2008"

Dave Ribar said...


Hi. The SCOTUS heard the Indiana case but has not issued a decision. Even if the SCOTUS says that the Indiana law is constitutional (which seems likely), that doesn't mean that the law is a good idea or effective (states have the authority to pass lots of dopey laws if they want). Constitutionality and efficacy are two very different concerns.

The poster that you found is someone else (Dave is a pretty common name; there are actually even several unrelated David Ribars who are Ph.D.s). At any rate, I almost never post under a pseudonym.

For the record, this is not the same Supreme Court that decided the 2000 election. Justices Alito and Roberts were not on the court then.