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Reforming the Vote

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The report released yesterday by a commission on federal election reform, headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, contains a number of valuable proposals. But adopting one of the commission's recommendations -- that voters be required to present a government-issued voter ID at the polls -- would, on balance, do more harm than good.

The commission's most useful proposals would address both lingering and new flaws in the current voting system. Five years after the problems exposed by the 2000 presidential election, voter registration rolls remain riddled with inaccurate and outdated information. The commission sensibly called on states to take charge of assembling accurate lists that would help eliminate duplicate registrations while making it easier for citizens to vote in new jurisdictions.

The introduction in 2004 of a requirement that voters who appear at the polls be given provisional ballots if their names aren't on the registration lists created questions about how to judge the legitimacy of such ballots. The commission sensibly recommended that states adopt clear statewide procedures for considering such ballots. The advent of computerized voting systems has provoked anxiety about whether such machines are secure from fraud or malfunction; the commission -- again sensibly, and in contrast to the position of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- endorsed the need for machines capable of delivering a voter-verifiable paper trail.

The problem recommendation -- which drew a dissent from three of the 20 commission members, including former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) -- would require voters to present a government photo identification at the polls. This may not sound particularly burdensome in an age when, as the commission noted, such IDs "are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check." Yet 12 percent of the voting-age population does not have a driver's license, and those without identification tend disproportionately to be minorities, the elderly and the poor. To its credit, the commission urges states to ensure that such IDs are "easily available and issued free of charge." But for those who don't already have identification, the hurdle of assembling the necessary documentation and obtaining the cards could prove a deterrent to voting.

On the other side of the balance is the risk of elections tainted by fraud or the perception of fraud. The commission found that "there is no evidence of extensive fraud in U.S. elections or of multiple voting, but both occur, and it could affect the outcome of a close election." That's true -- but so could turning away otherwise eligible voters.

Indeed, election administrators agree that absentee ballots pose a bigger risk of fraud, and in that case the commission would guard against fraud by having election officials match a signature on file. As commission member Spencer Overton, an election law expert at George Washington University, asks, why wouldn't the same be sufficient for those who turn up at the polls without ID? Allowing voters to show alternative forms of identification or to sign a sworn affidavit of eligibility could go a significant way toward deterring fraud without imposing the burden of an inflexible photo ID requirement.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company