May 28, 2024

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.


  1. I don’t understand why people don’t just go for a quick technical fix – maintain a facebook at each polling station of all registered voters for that precinct, and check each person off against their picture.

    • jeremy.epstein says

      First, by “facebook” I assume you mean that in the generic sense, not the web site.

      Here’s some issues that would need to be addressed:

      (1) Voters in most places are allowed to register by mail. Would they have to come in person to have a photo taken for inclusion in the pollbook? Or would you allow them to submit their own photo (and if so, how do you know it’s that person)? For most people, you could probably get the photo from DMV, but not everyone. (And no matter which choice, it’s going to increase cost, whether to develop software or have someone taking photographs.)

      (2) How often will people have to replace their photos? If it’s every time they vote that’s going to increase the lines at the polling places at the busiest elections, and that’s not going to make anyone happy. And do you really want 73 year old pollworkers (that’s the average age, nationwide) responsible for doing digital photography that impacts your right to vote in the future?

      (3) Who’s going to train the pollworkers to do facial recognition, and what are the policies if the pollworker things the photos don’t match? Since it’s highly subjective (unlike, say, an address match), there’s always going to be disagreements. Or are you going to use facial recognition software, which will increase costs and technological complexity? Pollworkers typically get two or three hours of training total – if you spend 10 minutes on facial recognition (hardly enough!), that’s pushing out some other critical aspect of the training. And pollworkers really hate going to training. My driver’s license photo is 15 years old, and as long as I don’t move states or get convicted of any heinous crimes, I can probably keep it for another 30 years. Do you want to make a decision based on a 40 year old photo?

      (4) Research has shown that people are better at facial recognition of people who look like the people they grew up with. That is, if you put a pollworker who grew up in a predominantly black area (regardless of their ethnicity) in an Asian neighborhood, or a pollworker who grew up in an Hispanic neighborhood in a white neighborhood, you’ll have more problems getting accurate matches and more opportunities for disenfranchisement. (Using technology can help reduce this problem.)

      And finally, there’s the simple engineering problems – for those places using paper pollbooks (a majority, I believe), adding color photos will significantly increase the costs since today they’re frequently printed on 8.5 x 14″ continuous feed paper. (Not to mention requiring a redesign of the pollbook, since there’s no room on the page to add a photo). For places that use electronic pollbooks, this may be a smaller hurdle.

      It’s an interesting idea – but one that’s not simple to carry out! The bottom line is that while there’s doubtless some fraud by people casting ballots as others, it’s quite low, and IDs or photos do very little to increase security or reduce the level of fraud.

      • Anonymous says

        There is also the fact that this type of electoral fraud does not scale particularly well, unlike, say, hacking voting machines.

        If I were to managed to cast two or three votes instead of one, it wouldn’t alter the outcome of any but the closest race; and arguably, when the race is that close, the alternatives in that race were about equally good (or bad) as judged by the population as a whole anyway. The “error” from people not making it to the polls due to causes like traffic or illness will be greater than the error from those two extra votes.

        And if I were to recruit a large enough number of conspirators to make a big difference, there’s no way the secret would keep for very long. Conspiracy also does not scale because the probability of someone blabbing during the time period when it will matter (say, the statute of limitations on prosecuting someone for electoral fraud) tends to 1 as the number of conspirators grows.

  2. In Australia, voting is compulsory. Everybody must enrol, and then they are included on a list in their electorate. When they vote, they get crossed off the list. If someone tries to vote using someone else’s name, they’ll see a record indicating that that person voted twice, and will throw out those votes.

    Of course, it doesn’t get around the issue of people just enrolling bogus names and addresses in the first place.

  3. Kind of a straw man there, I think. You used a law that doesn’t even require photo ID as a voting requirement as an example to reach the general conclusion that “photo ID laws for voting… are almost useless for preventing voting fraud”.

    Most proponents of photo ID laws would argue that, properly formulated, such laws would be effective in preventing at least some voter fraud. Clearly, the Virginia law is not properly formulated for this purpose. Any argument against the efficacy of such laws should at least attempt to determine what a properly formulated law would look like before drawing conclusions about their efficacy.

    • jeremy.epstein says

      Barry, fair point… except that it *is* the law in Virginia, and I’m guessing many other states as well. Tighter laws run into the problem of disenfranchising poor/minorities who are citizens but don’t have IDs, which is the reason for the weak laws in the first place.

      But even if we assume that the issue of disenfranchisement could be overcome (e.g., by providing IDs without cost to those who need them, requiring documents or other proof of citizenship that the voter might reasonably be expected to have)… we still have the problem that photo IDs frequently have old pictures and pollworkers receive no training on how to check them.

      • Even if you give out ID for free (while making sure that the process for proving that you’re poor enough to deserve free ID doesn’t exclude a bunch of poor people) , getting the documents to prove that you’re who you say you are so that you can get the ID is especially difficult for the poor and the elderly.

        It seems to me that (in a country with near-universal suffrage) way too much attention is being paid to matching a particular person to a particular entry in the voter registry, rather than simply identifying people who are eligible to vote and making sure they don’t vote more than once.