March 30, 2017

Do photo IDs help prevent vote fraud?

In many states, an ID is required to vote. The ostensible purpose is to prevent people from casting a ballot for someone else – dead or alive. Historically, it was also used to prevent poor and minority voters, who are less likely to have government IDs, from voting.

No one would (publicly) admit to the second goal today, so the first is always the declared purpose. But does it work?

In my experience as a pollworker in Virginia, the answer is clearly “no”. There are two basic problems – the rules for acceptable IDs are so broad (so as to avoid disenfranchisement) as to be useless, and pollworkers are given no training as to how to verify an ID.

Let’s start with what Virginia law says. The Code of Virginia 24.2-643 reads in part:

An officer of election shall ask the voter for his full name and current residence address and repeat, in a voice audible to party and candidate representatives present, the full name and address stated by the voter. The officer shall ask the voter to present any one of the following forms of identification: his Commonwealth of Virginia voter registration card, his social security card, his valid Virginia driver’s license, or any other identification card issued by a government agency of the Commonwealth, one of its political subdivisions, or the United States; or any valid employee identification card containing a photograph of the voter and issued by an employer of the voter in the ordinary course of the employer’s business. If the voter’s name is found on the pollbook, if he presents one of the forms of identification listed above, if he is qualified to vote in the election, and if no objection is made, […]

Let’s go through these one at a time.

  • A voter registration card has no photo or signature, and little other identifying information, there’s no way to validate it. Since voters don’t sign the pollbook in Virginia (as they do in some other states), there’s no signature to compare to even if it did have a signature. And since the voter card is just a piece of paper with no watermark, it’s easy to fabricate on a laser printer.
  • A Social Security Card (aside from the privacy issues of sharing the voter’s SSN with the pollworker) is usually marked “not for identification”. And it has no photo or address.
  • A Virginia driver’s license has enough information for identification (i.e., a photo and signature, as well as the voter’s address).
  • Other Virginia, locality, or Federal ID. Sounds good, but I have no clue what all the different possible IDs that fall into this category look like, so I have no idea as a pollworker how to tell whether they’re legitimate or not. (On the positive side, a passport is allowed by this clause – but it doesn’t have an address.)
  • Employee ID card. This is the real kicker. There are probably ten thousand employers in my county. Many of them don’t even follow a single standard for employee IDs (my own employer had several versions until earlier this year, when anyone with an old ID was “upgraded”). I don’t know the name of every employer, much less how to distinguish a valid ID from an invalid one. If the voter’s name and photo are on the card, along with some company name or logo, that’s probably good enough. Any address on the card is going to be of the employer, not the voter.

So if I want to commit fraud (a felony) and vote for someone else (living or dead), how hard is it? Simple: create a laminated ID with company name “Bob’s Plumbing Supply” and the name of the voter to be impersonated, memorize the victim’s address, and that’s all it takes.

Virginia law also allows the voter who doesn’t have an ID with him/her to sign an affidavit that they are who they say they are. Falsifying the affidavit is a felony, but it really doesn’t matter if you’re already committing a felony by voting for someone else.

Now let’s say the laws were tightened to require a driver’s license, military ID, or a passport, and no others (and eliminate the affidavit option). Then at least it would be possible to train pollworkers what an ID looks like. But there are still two problems. First, the law says the voter must present the ID, but it never says what the pollworker must do with it. And second, the pollworkers never receive any training in how to verify an ID – a bouncer at a bar gets more training in IDs than a pollworker safeguarding democracy. In Virginia, when renewing a driver’s license the person has the choice to continue to use the previous picture, or to wait in line a couple hours at a DMV site to get a new picture. Not surprisingly, most voters have old pictures. Mine is ten years old, and dates from when I had a full head of hair and a beard, both of which have long since disappeared. Will a pollworker be able to match the IDs? Probably not – but since no one ever tries, that doesn’t matter. And passports are good for 10 years, so the odds are that picture will be quite old too. I’m really bad at matching faces, so when I’m working as a pollworker I don’t even try.

There are some positive things about requiring an ID. Most voters present their drivers license, frequently without even being asked. If the name is complex or the voter has a heavy accent or the room is particularly noisy, or the pollworker is hard of hearing (or not paying close attention), having the written name is a help. But that’s about it.

So what can we learn from this? Photo ID laws for voting, especially those that allow for company ID cards, are almost useless for preventing voting fraud. It’s the threat of felony prosecution, combined with the fact that the vast majority of voters are honest, that prevents vote fraud… not the requirement for a photo ID.