The proposal from independent researcher John Lott that the integrity of the election process be protected by mandating a background check for all voters is invariably met with the same response: Are you joking?
Lott is not joking, as he made clear when The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham asked him that question Tuesday before Lott presented the proposal to President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission later that morning. Lott also assured the members of the commission that he was not joking when he presented the idea — after they asked if he was serious.
ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman was in the room.
Here, Huseman refers to New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardener, a member of Trump’s commission:
To be clear, Lott is proposing that voters literally undergo the same background check as those who are purchasing firearms. That process is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, introduced by the Brady bill in 1993 and implemented beginning in 1998. The Trace, a journalism site focusing on U.S. gun violence, has a good explanation of how it works: You go to a gun store, fill out Form 4473, and the store calls the FBI to see if you should be allowed to own a firearm.
Since 1998, only 1.5 million people checked have been denied firearm purchases, about half of them because the person had a criminal record. By comparison, 1.5 million checks is about 400,000 fewer than were processed by the FBI this August alone. It’s about 0.6 percent of the background checks that were run.
So let’s say that the Election Integrity commission decides to move forward with this recommendation, to protect our elections from the sort of person who might use his or her ballot to rob a bank or vote up a liquor store. Let’s say, too, that Congress decides that this is something worth doing, and that Trump signs it into law. What would the effects be?
The most obvious result would be to slow the process of registering to vote. Form 4473 is more complex than a voter registration form and includes questions about criminal records, mental health and service in the armed forces. Those things are checked against databases, as described by The Trace:
The NICS Index, which includes records contributed by federal and state agencies identifying individuals prohibited from buying a gun, for reasons ranging from criminal history to severe mental illness; the Interstate Identification Index, a database of criminal histories; and the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, an “electronic clearinghouse” of criminal records.
The process is theoretically instant, though Ben Beauchemin, the owner of Wicked Weaponry Firearms in Hooksett, N.H. (the state where Tuesday’s commission meeting was held), noted that hiccups can arise. Usually, he told The Post, his store can process an application while on the phone with the FBI. Sometimes it takes longer. Same-day voter registration would become significantly less likely.
The second-most obvious effect of Lott’s proposal would be a reduction in voter rolls. The system doesn’t screen out many people, but 0.6 percent of registered voters in the United States would total nearly a million people.
Another effect? A massive amount of bureaucracy. Beauchemin explained that there’s no fee for the NICS process unless his store is running a background check for a sale between two individuals. But obviously there’s a cost on the government’s end. According to the Department of Justice’s 2018 budget request, the NICS program costs $70.3 million to employ 591 people. (Justice asked for an additional $8.9 million to add 85 people.) If we apply those figures to the number of background checks performed in 2016 — 27,538,673 — the NICS program costs $2.55 per check and requires that 46,597 checks be conducted per staffer each year.
How many checks would we need to conduct if Lott’s proposal was enacted? Nearly six times as many. The Census Bureau estimated that 157,596,000 people were registered to vote in 2016, all of whom would need to undergo a background check. Assuming the cost and staff time holds once you sextuple the number of background checks, the cost of the program would balloon to $400 million and require the hiring of 2,791 more staffers. There would need to be 345 staff members to handle California alone. Checking Texas’ voters would cost the government $30 million.
If each of those background checks took 10 minutes, it would mean that the FBI would be spending the equivalent of 656,650 hours running background checks on America’s voters. That’s the equivalent of 1,800 years spent making sure that voters are mentally stable enough to vote.
It’s not clear if the process would need periodic renewals, but one can assume they would. (Some states require regular background checks for those with concealed-carry permits, for example.) After all, if you were arrested since your last time voting or had been discharged from the armed forces dishonorably, your background check results would probably change. So every two years, the FBI would need to spend 1,800 years of time making sure people could vote.
The presentation Lott made to the commission, mind you, has a much higher cost for the background checks, based on the owner-to-owner fees in several states. He cites costs of $55 per background check in Oregon and $175 in Washington, costs that he blithely offers could be addressed by the states footing the bill.
That would cost Oregon $118 million to clear its voters. It would cost Washington $684 million — 1.7 percent of the state budget. This is not feasible. One wonders if Lott is even serious about it.
Still, there would be one plus side to Lott’s proposal. To buy a gun, you’d just need to show up at the gun store with your “I Voted” sticker.