Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pros and Cons of Voter Identification Laws

On its face, it seems like a common sense issue.

Produce identification when you show up to vote to ensure that you are indeed the person purporting to vote on that ballot. Easy enough, right? Sound organizational systems incorporate reasonable internal controls for purposes of avoiding fraud.

Our government should, of all institutions, ensure that appropriate internal controls are in place within its operational systems. Correct? And if the voter process is one of those systems, why shouldn't it require identification to those who want to vote?

As always, the devil is in the details.

Here is a more complicated side to the discussion. Opponents of voter identification have a good point when they discuss the extent to which certain pockets of the population may be unable to produce photo identification.

Seniors, for instance, once abandoning the prospect of driving, often don’t renew their driver’s licenses. Homeless and transient poor are often unable to secure a driver’s license due to their inability to provide a permanent physical address. Those who are disenfranchised in our society should not be denied the right to vote, one of our Democracy’s most fundamental and important rights. Don’t you agree?

And what about the slippery slope at the polls?

Imagine a poll worker turning away voters due to that poll worker’s erroneous determination about whether the person’s identification looks like them. Not a good scenario, as we've all had cruddy driver’s license pictures from time to time, right? Further, lengthy processes could deter potential voters from participating, and as we all know, trying to get a driver’s license at the DMV these days can be nothing short of a prolonged and mind-numbing process.

Lastly, incurring costs or paying fees associated with securing identification for purposes of voting is analogous to a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. We need to encourage voter participation as opposed to deter it. Our democracy depends on it! So any process for voter identification would need to address these issues adequately in order to properly ensure that our citizens can exercise their right to vote.

Two basic questions about this debate might be helpful. 

First, do we really have a problem with voter fraud that would merit the time and cost of debate, deliberation, court review, implementation of processes, etc. that would be associated with enacting and enforcing such legislation? I don’t think so.

Second question, if voter fraud isn't really a problem, then what is motivating this discussion? Some would argue that the wealthy elite are pushing voter identification laws in an effort to deter voting by the very people who would likely oppose their agenda. Certainly a question deserving of an answer, don’t you think, particularly in light of our long history of the privileged class depriving entire populations from voting. Case in point, women have only for less than a century been afforded that right. 

Let's get serious!

This debate seems to me to be largely a distraction from some very serious and important issues affecting our state. We need to be talking about repairing our education system, addressing our heroin problem, creating an infrastructure for job creation and economic development, identifying a transition plan for a dwindling coal economy, and restoring and protecting our natural resources, which includes drinking water. These are the important issues facing us today. Let’s get serious about them, rather than getting distracted by a red herring issue.

I support voter identification, generally.

I indicated so in my response to the survey for the candidate forum last night. However, as I also mentioned last night, any process that seeks, even slightly, to infringe upon the constitutional rights of our citizens should be narrowly construed so as only to address a significant societal interest. In the instance of voter identification, the significant societal interest is securing against the possibility of fraud. 

Therefore, a narrowly construed statute might only require that voter registration offices include a photo on the voter registration card. For those who register online, securing the photo the first time they report to the polls might be possible. Lastly, poll workers should not be given broad discretion to turn away voters due to perceptions about the photo on the id, so another process would have to be developed to address any questions that arise and that would still give the participant the opportunity to vote upon reporting to the poll.  

But investing too much on this issue is a disservice to West Virginians.

While a properly drafted voter identification law would be something I support, proper drafting would require the narrow construction necessary to avoid fraud and could not place unreasonable burdens on citizens or seek to disenfranchise legitimate voters. All in all, this is not an issue of priority in which I intend to spend a great deal of time as a legislator, but I do hope this discussion is helpful to you in forming your own opinions.

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