May 24, 2024

How can we require ID for voters?

Recently, HR 5036 was shot down in Congress.  That bill was to provide “emergency” money to help election administrators who wished to replace paperless voting systems with optically scanned paper ballots (or to add paper-printing attachments to existing electronic voting systems).  While the bill initially received strong bipartisan support, it was opposed at the last minute by the White House.  To the extent that I understand the political subtext of this, the Republicans wanted to attach a Voter ID requirement to the bill, and that gummed up the works.  (HR 5036 isn’t strictly dead, since it still has strong support, but it was originally fast tracked as a “non-controversial” bill, and it is now unlikely to gain the necessary 2/3 majority.)

I’ve been thinking for a while about this whole voter ID problem, and I have to say that I don’t really see a big problem with requiring that voters present ID so they can vote.  This kind of requirement is used in other countries like Mexico and it seems to work just fine.  The real issue is making sure that all people who might want to vote actually have IDs, which is a real problem for the apparently non-trivial number of current voters who lack normal ID cards (and, who we are led to believe, tend to vote in favor of Democrats).

The question then becomes how to get IDs for everybody.  One answer is to put election authorities in charge of issuing special voting ID cards.  This works in other countries, but nobody would ever support such a thing in the U.S. because it would be fantastically expensive and the last thing we need is yet another ID card.  The “obvious” solution is to use driver’s licenses or official state IDs (for non-drivers).  But, what if you’ve never had a driver’s license?

As an example, here are Texas’s list of requirements to get a driver’s license.  Notice how they also require you have proof of a social security number?  If you’ve somehow managed to make it through life without getting one, and I imagine many poor people could live without one, then that becomes a significant prerequisite for getting a driver’s license.  And it’s pretty difficult to get a SSN if you’re unemployed and don’t have a driver’s license (see the Social Security Administration’s rules).

One way or another, you’re going to need your birth certificate.  Here’s how you get a copy of one in Texas.  If you don’t have any other form of ID, it’s pretty difficult to get your birth certificate as well.  You’ll either need an immediate relative with an ID to request your birth certificate on your behalf, or you’ll need utility bills in your name.  And if you’re older than 75, the state agency may not be able to help you, and who knows if the county where you were born has kept its older records properly.

It’s easy to see that somebody in this situation is going to find it difficult to navigate the bureaucratic maze.  If the only benefit they get, at the end of the day, is being allowed to vote, it’s pretty hard to justify the time and expense ($25 for the birth certificate, the social security card is free, and $15 plus hours waiting in line for the state ID card).  For potential voters who don’t have a permanent home address, this process seems even less reasonable.

The only way I could imagine a voter ID requirement being workable (i.e., having a neutral effect on partisan elections) is if there was a serious amount of money budgeted to help people without IDs to get them.  That boils down to an army of social workers digging around for historical birth records and whatever else, and that’s not going to be cheap.  However, I’m perfectly willing to accept a mandatory voter ID, as long as enough money is there to get one, for free, for anybody who wants one.  The government is willing to give you a $40 coupon to receive digital signals for an analog TV, as part of next year’s phase-out of analog broadcasts.  Why not help out with getting identification papers as part of phasing in an ID requirement?

[Sidebar: if you’re really concerned about people voting multiple times, the most effective solution has nothing to do with voter ID.  The simple, low-tech answer is to mark voters’ fingers with indelible ink.  It wears off after a while, it’s widely used throughout the world, and there’s no mistaking it for anything else.  I can’t wait for the day when I tune into my nightly newscast and see the anchor giving grief to the sportscaster because his thumb isn’t painted purple.]


  1. Just who are these people who dont’ have a valid ID and yet are eligible to vote? They are people who:
    1. Are under 65 and don’t have SSNs or ID needed to cash their SS checks or use Medicare.
    2. Don’t drink – you need ID to buy booze.
    3. Don’t smoke – you need ID to buy tobacco products.
    4. Don’t travel – you need ID to drive, board a train, board a plane, etc.
    5. Don’t read much – you need ID to get a library card.
    6. Don’t have children – you need ID to enroll your children in any school
    7. Were born in the US – naturalized citizens are give proper ID when they are sworn in
    8. Pay cash for everything – which means that they don’t own assets worth more than a few hundred bucks because you need ID to make very large cash purchases.
    9. Are homeless – you need ID to rent or own a home.
    10. Were born in a non medical facility – hospitals automatically assign SSNs to newborns.
    11. Actually want to vote – homeless people who meet all of the above requirements are usually too busy trying to survive without ID to have time to vote.

    Most democratic countries have some kind of voter ID system (e.g. Mexico). Most US states don’t. The Supreme Court already has approved voter ID schemes so isn’t it about time we joined the rest of the world and get normal ID requirements? I live in a state that requires IDs to vote and I have yet to meet someone who has been denied the right to vote because of ID requirements.

    I would even be willing to donate to a fund to help those who meet the above requirements (all ten of them:)) get the proper ID so they can vote. Any takers on this idea?

  2. John Millington says

    re: Roving gangs of finger-inkers.

    What stops the gangs of finger-inkers, is the same thing that stops murderers and muggers: a nebulous range of debatable deterrents. That also stops them from coming to the polling place with an AK-47 and stuffing the ballot box while everyone watches in horror.

    I guess what I mean is: the problem of conducting elections, comes with a premise of *some* sort of basic level of civility. That premise may, in fact, not be true. But if it’s not, then you’ve got bigger problems than an election being 5% off. You need to grab your pitchfork or torch, round up the neighborhood, go lynch the inkers, and then have your election the next day.

  3. Stephen S: when Washington state started requiring SSNs for driver’s license renewal several years ago, the stated reason was to help them track down “deadbeat dads.” I have little confidence that this was the primary reason, but it was apparently uncontroversial enough that the state sold it based entirely on that “benefit.”

    In Texas, your mileage may vary, of course.

    Back to the ID question…

    Here in Washington, it’s common for people to be “shocked, shocked I say” that polls don’t demand ID from voters. Even the King County Department of Records and Elections has a bad habit of implying in the voter’s pamphlets mailed out before elections that voters will be asked for ID at the polls. I don’t know how many pollworkers already think that ID is required.

    I’m not against requiring ID, I just don’t see how any ID scheme would actually solve the actual problem. In this sense I agree John’s “sloppy thinking” comment above — yes, there is a problem; but the scheme being suggested does not solve the problem, so it cannot help.

    Supercat: the “illegal immigrants” argument is a red herring. In what way are illegal immigrants any different from a legal immigrant, or even a native citizen, who does not have the right to vote in an election? There is no difference. Focusing on their immigration status is once again attacking the wrong problem, and cannot yield a useful solution.

  4. Stephen S says

    How long does the indelible ink last? Here, the polls are open an entire week leading up to “election day”; it’s really more “election week”. Would the ink still be visible enough after six days to prevent someone from voting again — and would voters accept an ink that did?

    Also, what about absentee votes or states that do voting by mail? There’s no way to ink those people’s fingers or verify they’re not inked when they vote. As it is, when I request an absentee ballot and then show up at the polls, all I have to do is sign a paper saying I never mailed it. There’s also nothing stopping me from stealing others’ blank ballots from their mailboxes and sending them in myself.

    “The Texas requirement for SSN is most likely centered around a reason not related to Drivers License whatsoever but with going after dead beat dads not paying child support.” It has nothing to do with child support; it’s entirely about preventing people from getting more than on driver’s license (and they now also require a thumbprint) — or even a first license in a false name now that they’re verifying names on DL/ID cards against the SS database. Of course, that just moves the problem to the feds.

  5. The inked finger approach could result in roving gangs of thugs pre-marking people to prevent them from voting.

    These roving gangs could equally well be stealing ID cards, or just giving people a good reason not to want to vote that day. It seems reasonable to argue that any country where roving gangs are the norm has bigger problems than ironing out a few small details in their voting process.

    Iraq, for example, is a country where roving gangs are the norm, and yet people still participated in their purple-thumb Democracy, regardless of threats and interference. The resulting government is widely accepted as Democratic but sadly has proven ineffective when it comes to governing the country, partly because Iraq is still really run by the US military and partly because of all those pesky roving gangs.

  6. Kamil Choudhury says

    As they used to say in Chicago on election day: vote early and vote often!

    The indelible ink thing is simple, and it works. Where I’m from (Bangladesh), it’s the preferred method of making sure that democracy-enthusiasts don’t overindulge. It isn’t 100% foolproof, but it does tend to filter out the more blatant vote rigging attempts by politicians.

  7. What ink could you possibly remove that wouldn’t kill people yet wouldn’t be easily removable? I find this hard to believe. Where can I find more information about these inks and the countries that use them?

  8. You could prevent a “roving bands of thugs pre-inking voters” DoS attack by using a closely guarded, distinctive stamp whose design changed from election-to-election. Perhaps based on some sort of hash code of the election date and polling place.

    Poll workers would then just have to check whether the stamp on a voter matched their stamp-du-jour to determine if the voter had, indeed, voted here already.

    None of this prevents ineligible voters from voting.

    And by the way, supercat, I don’t think any of the measures discussed here, including requiring drivers licenses or SSNs would prevent ineligible voters from voting. There are lots of folks who are here legally, who are not citizens, and therefore ineligible to vote, but who still have licenses and SSNs. And I seriously doubt if anywhere near 5-10% of undocumented people cast votes. If you are undocumented, the last thing you want to do is get on the government’s radar by, for example, registering to vote.

  9. @Brian Hayes
    The same thing that stops roving gangs of thugs from rounding up opposition supporters and beating them up or threatening them. Police and laws.

  10. Re: utility bills…

    I now get all my utility bills online. If I wanted them on paper, I would use my printer at home. The only way you could make this tamper-resistant is to have some kind of online check. I’m trying to imagine poll workers calling the 800-number of my electric company and sitting through the wait queue.

  11. Clarification:
    The voter registration card is the same size as the driver’s license.

    It lists the voter’s name, DoB, address, registration date, ward & precinct, and the polling place.

    It is missing a photo and any tamper resistant features. However, utility bills don’t have them either.

  12. In Ohio one can show a driver license/state ID, passport, or a variety of utility bills.

    The one ID that *can’t* be used is the government issued Voter Registration card.

    When questioned why it can’t be used, the answer is “It’s not an approved ID.” It doesn’t have a photo on it, but neither do the utility bills. It does have the voter’s ward and precinct numbers on it, which is information that could be useful to speed up the sign-in process as some voters don’t know theirs.

    Seriously, if you have to register to vote and if the registration process includes giving you a voter registration card — why not go for the easy solution of using that as the Voter ID?

  13. Re: purple ink. What stops a ruthless candidate from having thugs round up opposition supporters and ink their thumbs before they have a chance to vote?

  14. There are millions of people in this country illegally. At present, there’s no way of knowing how many of them vote, but even if only 5-10% that would represent the ‘swing’ of many elections (especially given that the vast majority of illegally-voting aliens vote Democrat). Every such criminal who votes disenfranchises a lawful voter.

    How can one realistically hope to limit the number of such criminals voting without requiring that voters (or at least voters born after, say, 1950) prove their eligibility? Is there any way?

    If there isn’t even a token effort to prevent millions of ineligible people from voting, how legitimate can the elections be?

  15. The real problem with the voter ID debate, IMHO, is sloppy thinking about what is the threat that this is a countermeasure for. AFAICT, the threat is voter fraud where person X goes to the polls and claims to be person Y, and votes, while Y is unaware because Y doesn’t vote. It is very hard to prove or disprove that this type of activity occurs much at all, much less enough to justify a strong voter ID system.

    For those interested in more on why this is so confusing, and what some other consequences are, and some possible fixes, see:

  16. A lot of California voters would complain that they have a chemical sensitivity to the ink.

  17. On the ‘sidebar’ note of indelible ink, as long as there are a few options to where it can go (say, the palm, or inside of the upper arm), there is less issue with beration of non-voters.

  18. …or apply the Australian system, where everyone is legally obligated to vote, including permanent residents who are not residents.

  19. The big loss with ID for voting is that it solves the wrong problem. We don’t need to know who the person is going into the voting booth, we want to know if they’re eligible to vote at that polling station. In fact, if we could figure out a way to prove eligibility without identifying people in a time-stamped register, a lot of things about safe, secure voting would become that much easier.

  20. Any requirement that voters present “valid ID” just moves the responsibility for granting a person’s right to vote to the poll workers, who are already overworked and undertrained. The end result will generally be that a change intended to make elections more reliable would end up making them less reliable.

    The only way I can think of that a scheme like this could possibly work is if it’s implemented on the federal level via a no-cost-to-the-voter, secure, reliable national voter registration card, and then training ALL poll workers in how to verify such a card. Like Dan says, there ain’t no money in anybody’s budget for this, not after blowing all those HAVA bucks on paperless DRE systems. And even if there were money, all the reasonable arguments against instituting a standardized/mandatory federal ID continue to apply here. Maybe we’ll eventually have to get over this understandable resistance to having “citizenship papers” to cure these problems, but it’s not going to happen this year.

    Adrian’s point about the denial-of-service possibilities of marking fingers is well made. And there’s an even worse problem than deliberate “DoS gangs.” How do you prevent a local election department from choosing a color that matches e.g. strawberry birthmarks, or indelible industrial pigments? Do you want to deny printers, graphic artists, metalworkers, etc. their right to vote? This is just another form of “identification” that poorly-trained poll workers would have to verify.

  21. When you’re still in the hospital, you can fill out paperwork to get a SSN for your newborn child. In anticipation of an international trip (which we didn’t end up taking), we also got my daughter a passport. Quite easy and painless.

    As to the roving gangs of finger-markers… can you imagine what happens when they get caught by the police? “Son, what are you doing with this marker?” “Just graffiti, officer.” “Well then go on ahead, son.”

  22. The new SSN rules are interesting. How do parents get SSNs for newborns if the newborn needs ID and proof of citizenship?

    The inked finger approach could result in roving gangs of thugs pre-marking people to prevent them from voting.

  23. The only genuine need for standardized voter ID that I can see in the U.S. is that it would make certain aspects of election administration more efficient. For example, after you move to a new house and re-register to vote, it would be easier for the election administration to update your records when their database is keyed to your driver’s license number. This could similarly help avoid ambiguities in removing and restoring felons from election rolls (versus knocking different people who happen to share the same name).

    In terms of showing up at the polls to vote, an ID requirement would make the voter registration process more efficient in vote centers and early voting locations. When any one of millions of potential voters could arrive at any given location to cast a ballot, you need an efficient way to look them up in the database and make sure they get the proper local ballot.

    In terms of anti-fraud, there would definitely be some anti-fraud benefit from requiring ID. However, in terms of bang-for-the-buck, it’s hard to beat purple Sharpie markers to doodle on your thumb.

  24. I have to say that I don’t really see a big problem with requiring that voters present ID so they can vote.

    Why? With any new law or requirement the proper response is “why is it needed?” and does that new requirement resolve the “why”? So far the reasons for the ID have been centered around notions with no data to back it up (fraud! there be fraud here! panic!). If I wanted to throw an election there are easier ways to do it without asking a bunch of people to vote more than once.

    The Texas requirement for SSN is most likely centered around a reason not related to Drivers License whatsoever but with going after dead beat dads not paying child support. Which is again a perfect example of a something issued by the government being used for more than originally intended.

    One other note – the process to get birth certificates varies widely by state and even by county. When we needed to get a birth certificate for my boyfriend to get a passport – the process was simply write to the state office with his name, mothers maiden name, and county. A brand new notarized certificate arrived within two weeks.