Stolen Elections or the Right to Vote? The Debate over Photo Identification Laws
Across the United States, people are tampering with elections. They vote twice. They pretend to be somebody else. They vote when they are not eligible to vote (minors, felons, foreigners, etc.). No one is certain how widespread the problem is, because election officials in most states aren’t required to check for illegal voters. When one such person votes fraudulently, he cancels out the vote of a real citizen who voted for the other candidate. When a few hundred people vote fraudulently, they can steal a close election. In response, and in compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, many states are trying harder to make sure only eligible voters cast ballots on Election Day. The toughest laws require citizens to present a photo ID when they arrive to vote, to prove their identity.
Ending Election Day; the Question of All-Mail Elections
Recent national elections have seen high-profile problems ranging from low turnout and general apathy to hassle and election fraud. Elections like Bush vs. Gore in Florida in 2000 and Franken vs. Coleman in Minnesota in 2008 have ended not only in recounts but in lawsuits. A growing number of people advocate doing away with the polling place altogether, and conducting elections entirely by absentee ballot. In 1998, Oregon became the first state to operate its elections as all-mail elections, with Washington close behind. The argument was that this method of conducting elections was cheaper, more accurate, and more conducive to high voter turnout. The question: should all elections be run this way? Is the era of “Election Day” over?
In-Person Voting Before Election Day
Election debacles in the last decade have raised a cry for reform. Innovations have included guards against fraud, but an increasing number of states have also implemented systems aimed at making it easier to vote. One such system is early in-person voting, in which voters can go to certain polling places in the days or weeks before the election and cast their vote. In 2004, 8% of American voters took advantage of this opportunity. Proponents argue that the convenience of being able to skip the lines made people more inclined to vote. They also claim the system eased the burden on election officials, who were left with smaller crowds on Election Day. Experts disagree on whether early in-person voting lowers or raises costs, but proponents argue that regardless, it is a convenience worth having.
Banning Third-Party Voter Registration
The 2008 election saw ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) featured prominently in the news, because it was repeatedly charged with voter registration fraud. ACORN, like many organizations on both sides of the political aisle, pays employees to register people to vote (these efforts are known as “third-party” registration drives). In such drives, employees stake out an area or go door to door, trying to convince residents to fill out voter registration forms, and then return the forms (usually en masse) to the election office. Third-party registration drives are commonly credited with raising awareness and turnout. However, third-party drive employees have increasingly come under scrutiny for making mistakes on the forms, or even filling out forms for imaginary people. The problems these actions cause for election officials can range from extra hassle and risk of mistakes (thousands of forms turned in at the last minute) to illegal voting and tampering with elections.
One-Stop Voting; Election Day Registration
With all the controversies in recent years about mail ballots, provisional ballots, and absentee ballots, a few states have implemented Election Day Registration (EDR). It works like this: Joe Voter shows up at a polling place in Wyoming on Election Day. He lives in Wyoming and has a Wyoming driver’s license, but he has never registered to vote. And the deadline to register by mail was three weeks ago. No problem—he registers to vote right there at the polling place, and then casts his ballot, all in one trip. Proponents have touted EDR as a way to increase turnout and make elections fairer by allowing disadvantaged voters (homeless people, frequent movers, etc.) easier access to the ballot.
The Question of a National Voter Registration Database
Many election reforms have been proposed in recent years, and some have been implemented. But not one prevents voters from voting in two different states, because voter databases are maintained by each state individually. This means states cannot prevent this kind of fraud, and since their databases are run differently, problems can also occur for voters who move to a different state. Some nonpartisan organizations have suggested implementing a national registration database to correct these kinds of errors and prevent fraud. The organizations point to the top-down systems currently in place in Europe, arguing that they were easy to implement with existing resources and that the same can be done in America. Such a database, they suggest, would allow for consistency in how the states handle elections, and greater effectiveness in enforcing the law and protecting the votes of law-abiding citizens.
Counting the Votes: Obstacles in the Road to Accurate Elections
Any politician will tell you that how you vote matters. Not what position you take, but how you actually cast your vote. In the United States’ effort to modernize since the 2000 “hanging chad” election, proposed solutions have ranged from going all the way back to paper ballots, to switching to computer voting (DREs), to using paper ballots counted by machine (“optical scan”). The choice between them has been a hot-button issue for nine years running, and anyone who has an opinion has a strong opinion. Which system is the best way to make sure voting is fair, easy and secure?
The difficulty in answering this question is the number of goals that have to be met all at once.
Whatever system is chosen must be accessible. Everyone must be able to use it, regardless of location, education or disability; and their identity must remain anonymous so they cannot be bribed or blackmailed.
The system must be reliable. Whatever technology involved must be trusted to produce accurate results, and allow for the mistakes that judges, officials and voters will inevitably make from time to time.
It must be efficient. It must be able to process large numbers of voters without long waits in line, and count their votes quickly.
And it must be secure. It must be able to resist attempts to tamper with or rig the election, and officials must be able to verify the results afterward.