Jimmy Carter is right: Amend the immigration bill to require voter ID
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
By John Fund
Amid all the disputes over immigration in Congress, one amendment is being proposed that in theory should unite people in both parties. How about requiring that everyone show some form of identification before voting in federal elections? Polls show overwhelming support for the idea, and there is increasing concern that more illegal aliens are showing up on voter registration rolls. But the fact that photo ID isn't likely to pass shows both how deeply emotional the immigration issue has become and how bitter congressional politics have become with elections only 5 1/2 months away.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican whip, is proposing the photo ID amendment. He notes that Mexico and many other countries require the production of such identification in their own elections, and that the idea builds on the suggestion of last year's bipartisan election reform commission headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker.
The Carter-Baker commission issued 87 recommendations to improve the functioning of election systems. One called for a national requirement that electronic voting machines include a paper trail that would allow people to check their votes, while another would have states establish uniform procedures for counting provisional ballots.
But the biggest surprise was that 18 of 21 commissioners backed a requirement that voters show some form of photo identification. They argued that with Congress passing the Real ID Act to standardize security protections for drivers' licenses in all 50 states, the time had come to standardize voter ID requirements. Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle joined two other commissioners in complaining that the ID requirements would be akin to a Jim Crow-era "poll tax" and would restrict voting among the poor or elderly who might lack such an ID.
Mr. Daschle's racially charged analogy is preposterous. Almost everyone needs photo ID in today's modern world. Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, believes that in an era when people have to show ID to rent a video or cash a check, "requiring ID can help poor people" who otherwise might be even more marginalized by not having one.
The Carter-Baker commissioners recognized that cost could be a barrier to some and thus recommended that identification cards be provided at no cost to anyone who needed one. They also argued that photo ID would make it significantly less likely that a voter would be wrongly turned away at the polls due to out-of-date registration lists or for more malicious reasons. In any case, the tacit acknowledgment by Mr. Carter and most of the other liberals on the commission that the integrity of the ballot is every bit as important as access to the ballot was a welcome one.
The photo ID issue is being joined with the immigration debate because there is growing anecdotal evidence that voter registration by noncitizens is a problem. All that it takes to register is for someone to fill out a postcard, and I have interviewed people who were still allowed to register without checking the box that indicated they were a citizen. Several California counties report that an increasing number of registered voters called up for jury duty write back saying they are ineligible because they aren't citizens, The man who in 1994 assassinated Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana had registered to vote at least twice in the U.S. although he was not a citizen. An investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service into alleged fraud in a 1996 Orange County, Calif., congressional race revealed that "4,023 illegal voters possibly cast ballots in the disputed election between Republican Robert Dornan and Democrat Loretta Sanchez." It's certainly true that new ID rules alone wouldn't eliminate all the potential for fraud. Much of the voter fraud taking place today occurs not at polling places but through absentee ballots. In some states party officials are allowed to pick up absentee ballots, deliver them to voters and return them, creating opportunities for all manner of illegal behavior. Other states allow organizations to pay "bounties" for each absentee ballot they deliver, which provides an economic incentive for fraud. The Carter-Baker commission recommended that states eliminate both practices.
In a politically polarized country, photo ID for voting is a rare issue that enjoys across-the-board support among the general public. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month found that 80 percent of voters favored a photo ID requirement, with 62 percent favoring it strongly. Only 7 percent were opposed. Numbers that high indicate the notion has overwhelming support among all demographic and racial groups.
Skeptics argue that in some states the effort to impose such a requirement seems to emphasize the ID requirement while not making a serious effort to ensure everyone has such a document. Robert Pastor, executive director of the Carter-Baker commission, claims that some Republicans supporting voter ID "are not really serious about making sure that voter ID is free for those who can't afford it." Some analysts say a photo ID law could pass on the national level only if it is seen to satisfy both sides. "As part of an overall bipartisan package of election reform -- which would include universal voter registration conducted by the government -- national voter identification makes sense, especially if structured to limit absentee vote fraud, and so that identification can be checked across states," says Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School. But he says that excessive "partisan jockeying is not going to increase public confidence in the outcome of elections." Sen. McConnell's proposed photo ID requirement is a good idea, but it may be able to move forward only if he puts some real money on the table to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can get an ID. In that, the photo ID issue resembles the immigration debate itself. The only immigration bill that is going to pass both houses is one that combines beefed-up border enforcement with steps that regularize the growing demand for labor from Mexico via some kind of legal guest worker program. But sadly, in the case of both photo ID and immigration, political jockeying appears to be the order of the day. It may take a lame-duck session of Congress after this year's election for members finally to address both issues seriously.
John Fund writes the weekly Political Diary column for OpinionJournal.com.