June 19, 2024

voting ID requirements and the Supreme Court

Last week, I posted here about voter ID requirements.  There was a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on the same topic.  It seems Indiana was trying to require voters to present ID in order to vote.  Lawsuit.  In the end, the court found that the requirement wasn’t particularly onerous (the New York Times’s article is as good as any for a basic summary, or go straight to the ruling).

Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of hang-wringing on this (see, for example, this New York Times unsigned editorial).  We can expect similar legislation elsewhere now that the Court has made it pretty difficult to challenge these sorts of laws (see, for example, the ongoing battle to pass this sort of legislation in Texas).

As I wrote last time, I’m not particularly opposed to voters being required to present ID.  However, ID needs to be easy to get for anybody who is elgible to vote.  For most people, this is easy.  The big question we’d all like to know is the size of the population for which it’s not easy.  Consider, as a hypothetical example, an elderly Texas woman who never drove a car.  If she’s over 75 years old, the state’s centralized birth certificate registry won’t (officially) have her records.  It could well require detective work to produce sufficient documentation to get her a state ID card.  Who’s going to pay for that?

The big technical question, of course, is whether the root desires behind the voter ID requirement can be addressed in some more effective fashion than ID requirement.  What are those root desires?

  1. Prevent legitimate citizens from registering to vote and voting in more than one locale
  2. Prevent registered voters from casting multiple votes in their own name
  3. Prevent registered voters from impersonating other registered voters
  4. Prevent anyone, including malicious poll workers, from casting votes on behalf of registered voters who have chosen not to vote
  5. Prevent non-eligible people (non-citizens, felons, etc.) from registering to vote
  6. Detect changes in registered voters’ eligibility status, quickly and accurately

Which problems can be solved by purple ink on a voter’s thumb?  #1 and #2 are readily solved, since a second attempt to vote will be forbidden.  #3 is disincentivized, because the impersonator will be unable to vote under his or her own name.  #4-6 will require other technologies.

Okay, which problems can be solved by having required voter ID?  Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, we have a centralized state database keyed off the voter’s ID card number, but individual polling places do not have real-time access to this database.  Also, let’s assume that voter ID cards do not have any computational power: no smart cards, no crypto, etc.  #1 is ostensibly solved by the central database.  #2 cannot be prevented (at least, in a world with early voting or voting centers, where a voter has multiple places where he or she can legitimately vote), but it can be detected, and is thus disincentivized.  #3 is solved.  #4 is largely unsolved: if malicious poll workers want to forge signatures in the poll book, they may or may not be detected.  (In a recount situation, written signatures should be verified, but it’s unclear what the accuracy of that checking process might be.)

You could try to solve #4 with smartcards that issue digital signatures, but that’s a whole different can of worms.  Since the smartcard doesn’t really know what it’s being asked to sign, this could be exploited by an attacker.  (Example: you need to present your ID in a variety of different circumstances, such as proving your age to enter a bar.  The bouncer could “swipe” your card and use that as a way of getting a forged signature on an election record.)

What about #5 and #6?  These are really back-end database problems.  Requiring voters to present ID doesn’t have any impact.  However, having a database that is keyed off the voters’ ID cards significantly improves #5 and #6 and could ostensibly help reduce a variety of errors in the process.

Curiously, it seems that most of the benefit of requiring ID occurs in the back-end database, rather than on the day of the election.  The only real benefit of presenting ID, on election day, occurs in vote centers, early voting locations, and so forth.  When there may be millions of eligible voters who could use a vote center, traditional paper poll books are unworkable.  With a database keyed from ID card numbers, a voter’s records can be efficiently looked up and verified.  While this isn’t a security problem, improving the efficiency of the voting process is still a worthwhile goal.


  1. You seem to have solved all 6 of your probelms with a combination of indelible ink and ID cards.

    In the UK, you are required to register to vote, normally using a birth certificate or some form of ID that has a birth certificate as a root, eg a driving license, or a passport, or some other proof of entitlement if you’re a naturalised citizen. You *must* register ahead of time. Then you are required to either register for postal voting or vote in a specified polling booth, which is notified ahead of time, by delivering a “polling card” to the registered address. The electoral roll is held by the local council, which may administer one or more constituencies’ rolls.

    You may only vote in one constituency, but if you have more than one residence address (e.g. you’re a student at a university in a different constituency to your home), and are declared as such, you may vote in either one of your constituencies.

    Ballot papers are numbered, and the number is written next to your name when you vote. I am unsure if I have the right to view my ballot afer submission, but I do assume that some form of cross-checking of voter attendance happens between the various constituencies for those eligible to vote in more than one, and the ballots can be pulled in the case of double voting.

    I know for a fact that registering to vote in one constituency requires you to declare your former address, and present some proof of address (utility bill, etc), so that your name can be taken off that constituencies’ roll.

    The postal voting and proxy voting systems are full of security holes, and the electoral roll is pretty easy to game, so it’s not that brilliant a system. The advantage is that constituenies in the UK are pretty small, and vote only for local representatives (such as congress or senate races) so it’s more difficult to throw the vote in favour of one particular party. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition.

    Then again, the UK has a very anti-ID card stance, and requiring ID cards to vote would possibly provoke a riot. Especially given that the buggers are going to cost in the region of 100 pounds.

  2. Dan, you forgot two other crucial requirements:

    7. Prevent those bastards who support the Other Party from rigging the rules to favor them, while allowing My Party to do the just, decent thing and rig the rules to favor us.

    8. Protect our privacy from the government, which, being at least half-controlled by those bastards who support the Other Party, would undoubtedly take any information given it for the purpose of conducting a scrupulously fair election and scandalously misuse it in ways that might unfairly fail to benefit My Party.

    In other democratic countries, elections are run by independent government agencies that are mandated to ensure that all eligible voters, and no ineligible ones, can vote. They generally do their job very well–but then, they operate in countries where government is viewed as something more than just an instrument with which My Party can more effectively combat the evil machinations of the Other Party.

  3. Anderer Gregor says

    I think 5 should read “Prevent non-eligible people (non-citizens, felons, etc.) from *casting a vote*”.
    Or else there should be at least the desire that unregistered voters should not be able to impersonate registered voters, too. This is another thing that inked fingers won’t solve …

  4. If we take the inevitability of the ID requirements for granted, at least in the short to medium term, then trying to consider to find benefits from the situation is certainly advisable. I would argue that stepping back and considering how ID requirements creates disenfranchisement is important, and it is through a burden on the voter (in terms of cost, time and effort) and through potential errors/flaws in the ID system itself.

    The cost burden is resolved by either providing subsidy to certain demographics (needless to say what the reaction to that would be), or simply providing the ID for free on enrollment. Time and effort burdens are not easily resolved, as it involve accounting for mobile or itinerant voters and having to cope with voters who may have few records. These problems are mainly a burden to lower income (all three factors), younger (mobility factor), and seniors (cost and records).

    If any ID is allowable, database issues are minimised due to redundancy, obviously they are not resolved and I am not accounting for mendacious behaviour. I would argue that this method is ineffective against truly malicious fraud, as previous posters have pointed out that it is easy enough to fake most forms of ID. The only way to resolve this is to have the ID electronically verified against the database, an impossibility to achieve if any ID is allowed. Therefore, it is necessary to create a specific form of ID just for voting. This avoids integration of the plethora of state and federal IDs, and minimises the opportunity and incentive for identity theft.

    I would argue that this is an opportunity to move to overhaul the enrollment system itself. If the only way to achieve the stated ‘goals’ of the ID requirement advocates, ensuring no fraud is possible voter side (obviously this doesn’t have an effect on other forms of voting fraud), is to set up a centralised database, then it would also follow that it requires states ceeding responsibility to an agreed central body to administer and manage it all. The argument can be taken further to overhauling the entire election system to further reduce localised and state based irregularities.

    It should be acknowledged that the real goal of the ID requirement movement IS to disenfranchise voters, not the same as saying anyone who supports it is advocating disenfranchisement because on its face it is a reasonable concept. I would hardly say that Republicans ‘sidestep’ the argument, because that would imply that they feel that the prevention of fraud outweighs the negatives, rather than simply not wanting to admit their true motives to which the prevention of fraud is just window dressing. This is evident in the fact that of all the recent instances of voter fraud and irregularity, there has been few if any that would have been prevented by voter ID.

  5. The basic idea of voting is this:

    We could fight to the death about who is going to be leader. It is not entirely unreasonable to do so when you think about what happens when a really bad leader comes along. However, if you were going to fight to the death and you knew that you were on the side which was going to lose, then (unless you have principles) it makes better sense to admit defeat early and call off the fight.

    Voting is a proxy for the fight, because in simple terms, the side with the most supporters is likely to win. Once the losing side recognize that they are outnumbered, they have no incentive to push their luck; and the winning side are getting what they want so they have no incentive to start a trouble either. Violence is avoided so long as the outcome of the vote is a reasonably accurate indicator of what they outcome of the fight might have been.

    When substantial numbers of people have no vote, they get an incentive to make their will heard by other means. Indeed, they can ONLY get heard by other means. Thus, the obvious answer to #5 is to make everyone eligible, and that solves #6 too, with a some amazingly simple technology.

  6. It’s certainly the case that Republicans want this sort of requirement and Democrats don’t want it. Democrats explicitly argue that it will disenfranchise voters. Republicans sidestep that argument and talk about preventing fraud (or, perhaps, about reducing the perception of possible fraud). I’m not disputing any of that. My concern, given that these sorts of requirements are increasingly inevitable, is how to make them equitable and how to get some benefits from this, while we’re at it.

  7. all of this discussion pre-supposes there is a problem with fraudulent voting regarding faking someone else’s identify. My understanding is virtually no evidence was presented to the SC that this was an issue and I believe I even read a news story that said an Indiana state official admitted as much.

    Furthermore, it appears the preponderance of research and studies asserting voting fraud is rampant has come from rightwing affiliated groups with an agenda to push. Virtually all peer reviewed, independent studies of voter fraud show that cases of actual voter fraud are vanishingly small.

    this appears very much to be a solution in search of a problem. If that is the case, what is the real reason for these laws?

    I think we all know the answer to that question.

  8. Agreed, it’s certainly possible to fake an ID. It’s one thing to use a fake ID to get a beer. It’s another thing to use a fake ID to register to vote, because the voting registrar can (and should) cross-check their data against the department of motor vehicles. If there’s a mismatch, then you don’t get onto the voter rolls.

    – You could generate a fake ID in order to assume the identity of a legitimate voter. That could get expensive if you wanted to generate a large number of fake IDs, and assuming poll workers knew how to double-check all the security features.

    – The other attack would be against the driver’s license registry itself. Getting a fake license has benefits that go well beyond voting. This gets us into the broader, more confusing world of identity theft. Rationally, if you’re going to take the risks of getting a “legitimate” ID card via fraud, then you’re risking getting caught every time you use it. Voting, or even registering to vote, would seem to be an unnecessary and irrational risk.

  9. You write, “Okay, which problems can be solved by having required voter ID? … #3 is solved.”

    Is #3 really solved by an ID requirement? Can’t IDs be forged? Granted, impersonation might be detected if the impersonated person shows up to vote, but you can detect impersonation even without an ID requirement. (What a mess that would be to untangle.) An ID requirement does increase the effort required to pull off #3, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be solved.

  10. Andrew: I suppose I should have written “ostensibly legitimate or non-partisan root desires”.

    Barry: There’s no evidence to support the case that illegitimate people are actually voting illegally. However, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that there are some. The issue is that any measure you might take to filter out one population (illegal voters) will have collateral damage on a second population (voters without state-issued ID cards). The question nobody’s answered well is what the relative size is of each population.

  11. Conversely, the other side’s goal of letting people vote without ID may be motivated from a desire to gain political advantage by letting people vote who are ineligible. Which is worse, disenfranchising a person by not allowing them to vote, or disenfranchising everyone a little bit by allowing someone to vote when they’re not supposed to?

  12. You list 6 “root desires behind the voter ID requirement”. Dan, for once you have failed to think like the security expert that you are; you list only “white-hat” root desires. It is not at all unreasonable to believe that one of the real root desires behind the voter ID requirement is to disenfranchise that (very substantial) class of voters that does not carry a driver’s license, and thereby gain political advantage. Even a few members of the Supreme Court noticed this.