Politics and Governance

Encouraging Voters Even with Paperwork

In a September 17 report on National Public Radio, Kansas’ Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, defended new voter identification laws because they “protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that in those rare cases, elections are not stolen.”  Democrats throughout Kansas (and Texas, which recently passed its own voter ID law) argued that voter fraud is extremely uncommon, and voter ID laws are designed primarily to discourage members of left-leaning racial demographics from getting to the polls on Election Day.

Apparently, balancing voter participation and voting security is a partisan issue.

Currently in Texas, a prospective voter must provide proof of identity and residence to register to vote, and can do so either by mail or in person up to 30 days before an election. Voters in 2012 will have to register and then present one of six approved forms of photo identification at the polls. Many of these forms of identification will now require proof of citizenship, which is notably different than the previous identity and residence requirements for registration. Also noticeably missing from this list are student identification cards, making it more difficult for college students, a typical Democratic constituency, to vote.

With same day registration, voters can provide an approved form of identification on Election Day to register and vote at the same time. The convenience of same day registration typically translates into high voter turnout, as seen in states such as Maine and Wyoming. Opponents argue that same day voter registration increases the risk of voter fraud and can result in people voting in the wrong precinct to sway elections.

Charlie Webster, the Chairman of Maine’s Republican party said, “If you want to get really honest, this is about how the Democrats have managed to steal elections from [the] Maine people.” With their recently obtained majority in the Maine legislature, Webster and the Republican Party overturned the state’s longstanding same day registration policy. However, Maine residents reacted unfavorably to this action, and the rule was reinstated in November

Logically, there is room for compromise on voter registration issues between Democrats worried about access to polls and Republicans concerned about the security of the ballot box: Voter ID states should implement same day voter registration. The stringent photo identification requirements would offset the security risks associated with same day registration.

This secure environment would be augmented by the recent standardization of voter machines through the Help America Vote Act. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir confirms that, “the (electronic) voting system we use today is more accurate and tamper proof than any other voting method we have employed in the past.”

Since the main argument against same day registration has to do with security against fraud, and voter identification helps prevent it, states could conceivably implement same day registration in a secure manner that also results in a net increase in voter participation.

To illustrate: according to information provided in a recent article in The New York Times and on the U.S. Secretary of State’s website, about eight million people voted in Texas in 2008, and approximately 600,000 of those voters did not have registered drivers licenses. This means that if none of these 600,000 voters are able to obtain one of the five remaining authorized forms of identification by 2012, voter turnout would decrease by 7.5 percent with the implementation of voter ID.

However, according to a study by Thomas Patterson at George Mason University, states allowing same day voter registration experienced 15 percent higher turnout than states without these policies. This means that it is likely that a combination of voter identification and same day registration would increase ballot box security as well as voter turnout.

The right to vote is a fundamental component in a democratic society, yet its implementation is inextricably political. Nowhere is this clearer than in the partisan divides over voter identification and same day voter registration laws. Considered separately, each is extremely polarizing. Yet enacted together, they can form a pathway to a stronger democracy.

With voter ID, states are signaling a preference for strict security over access to the polls. Legislators should take advantage of this added security to implement same day registration to increase participation. If security-minded Republicans disagree with this proposition, perhaps voter ID is not primarily a security issue after all.

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