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The political flap about Voter ID

A straight answer

August 2015

An American minor movement, supported by the Democratic party, makes the claim that state laws requiring voters to positively identify themselves at the voting booth are prejudicial against those who find it difficult to obtain ID documents. Their simple solution is to not require positive ID of voters; but this would lead to worse problems than it would solve.
Norway, where I'm writing from, is in the midst of a parliamentary election campaign. The election is in a couple of weeks, and by agreement of the parties the campaign started just a couple of weeks ago. That's all. Although I've experienced a good number of similar Norwegian elections, the scene is a revelation for an American: It is possible to say everything you have to say in about a month. The people hear what you have to say, they decide, and they cast their vote. What's so hard about that? It doesn't take a year and a half, and it doesn't cost millions of dollars. Here private money donations are strictly limited, and TV and radio appearances are limited to formal question periods that give each of the leading candidates equal chances to speak. The rest of campaigning is found on the internet and at stands here and there in the city, where you can get brochures outlining the party platforms. The format seems quick and fair, with no particular bias. I ask – if you'll pardon the digression – what has made such a grotesque monstrosity out of the American election system in recent years? What has dragged the presidential election campaign out to the better part of two years, and has required the would-be candidates to corrupt themselves to those willing to give them the most money? The answer is both money itself (especially given the Supreme Court's recent decisions that the Constitution requires that your freedom of speech should be proportional to your bank account), and the lack of meaningful regulation of the election process. But returning from my digression...)

This morning I passed a small, temporary building put up in a neighborhood park here in Oslo, which announced itself as a place to cast advance votes, to avoid the crowds on election day. But what caught my eye was a poster on the side of the building that said (in Norwegian) "Don't forget to bring your ID." Indeed, how obvious: you can't be identified as being who you say you are if you don't bring an identification document. This requirement is certainly not considered odd in Norway, and in no way an abrogation of anyone's right to vote. But in the U.S. at this moment, there are law suits against my home state of North Carolina complaining that a requirement to positively identify the voter as a citizen registered to vote is a partisan state plot against the destitute and others who for whatever reason have been unable to secure an ID card. (Whatever the facts of the case – i.e., how many voters have been prevented from getting ID cards – the partisan element is clear: Republicans control the legislature, while Democrats believe that most of those who have failed to secure proper identification are their own voters.)

I'll jump directly to my conclusion: Of course it's necessary to properly identify as legal voters persons who present themselves to vote. Voting is the defining function of a democracy; if it is not safeguarded from fraud or corruption, the democracy itself is not safeguarded. The requirements for voting in the U.S. are elementary: Be a citizen of the U.S., and be at least eighteen years of age. By the Constitution, no additional restrictions may be imposed. While the opponents of the requirement for proof of identity at the voting booth argue that this constitutes an unconstitutional additional requirement, this argument is specious. The voter must already have presented proof of both age and citizenship when registering to vote; without this check the requirements in the Constitution would be meaningless. And if these verifications do not constitute an "additional requirement" for voting, then clearly the check on identity at the voting booth – being equally necessary for a fair vote – does not either.

I came of voting age in Chicago, Illinois in the 1960's, and there's no better illustration of the effect of voter manipulation. The state of Illinois may have the most corrupt state government in the nation. Starting with the early 1960's, four of the next seven Illinois governors spent time in prison for corruption in public office, including the most recent inmate, Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is still incarcerated. Three of these are Democrats, but it didn't help to get a Republican in office – he wound up in jail, too. Chicago in the 60's was ruled with an iron hand by Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Democratic "machine", as it was always called. Voter identification rules were very slack, and it was well known that one of the duties of the Democratic ward captains was to find "voters" who would vote in several wards, on behalf of deceased or emigrated voters still on the rolls, or for voters who the ward captain was sure would not be voting. The popular motto in Chicago was "Vote early, vote often." (When Richard Nixon barely lost Illinois – and thereby the presidential election – in 1960, he declined to ask for a recount. While everyone knew there was fraud, Nixon knew that the fraud wasn't in the counting, it lay in the failure of voter identification.)

For those inexperienced or misguided souls who believe that the basic honesty of man provides sufficient guarantee against voter fraud, look to Chicago and Illinois. In the political quest for power, honor is an undependable commodity. The strange thing in the U.S. is that some states still do not require positive identification of voters. It must be implemented throughout the country to ensure that at least the balloting portion of the election procedure is fair and uncorrupted.

Having said this, there remains the question of whether some citizens who wish to vote have been or might be prevented by their circumstances from obtaining one of the acceptable identification documents. I don't know what the incidence of this has been; I expect it would be quite low. The North Carolina legislature has just amended the election laws to provide alternative documentation for voters in this situation; perhaps this will resolve the complaint in that state. But in any case, having in place a positive action program to ensure that no one who wishes to vote is denied that opportunity is a far better choice for a government than the alternative of risking fraud by failing to require positive identification of voters at the ballot box.

Update, July 2016.
An interesting item a year later: The Obama administration requires a valid ID to vote!

I am again overseas for the summer, and a couple of days ago I got an emailed notice of voting procedures from the U.S. government. Let me just quote the State Department's instructions for voting, for Americans who find themselves out of the country at election time. I've slightly abbreviated the notice:


"In order to vote in the November 2016 elections, all overseas U.S. citizens need to have completed a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) in 2016. Whether you are a first-time voter or have already received ballots and voted absentee in past elections, you must complete an FPCA each year to participate in elections as an overseas absentee voter.

"You may drop off your ballot request or voted ballot at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo for return to the United States between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., ... Please note that it has to be the FPCA or FWAB (Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot) envelope found currently on, and not just a regular envelope. Regular envelopes will not be accepted. Please make sure that you are not using an old FVAP envelope... The current envelopes found on are U.S. postage paid. The guards outside the Embassy will accept the envelope. The person dropping it off must present a valid ID and wait until it has been scanned before leaving. ... "


What should we call this? An unconstitutional burden? How many steps is this? The FPCA; the FWAB envelope (or is it the FVAP envelope?) – this year's envelope, not last year's envelope (you need a computer, an internet connection, and a printer to get the stuff); the valid ID (Hello?!) ...
I guess when the feds do it, it's constitutional enough.

© 2015 H. Paul Lillebo

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