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Voting ID Laws

Republicans and Democrats are feuding over identification requirements for casting a ballot in elections. Basically, the Republicans want all voters to produce some valid identification before given a ballot. The Democrats, on the other hand, do not want this change. Both sides claim their way is democratic, and the other way is not.

It does not take a genius to realize that “being more democratic” is not in the agenda of either party. Rather, both parties are looking to tilt the electoral rules in their favor.

To make the Democrat’s case, the driver’s license is the most popular form of ID in the USA. Most of us with a license never think twice about how we can prove who we say we are to various government officials. For example, part of my current occupation is invigilating exams for various educational institutions. And to ensure the name on the exam matches the person, the driver’s license is almost always proffered to me as the means to make this important connection.

But people without a driver’s license have a tougher time proving they are who they say they are. Sometimes people like me just don’t accept documents we are not familiar with. For example, I would not likely accept your fishing license to write your exam.

So, who are the people without a driver’s license in the USA? I would wager they are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. So Democrats stand a good chance of losing votes if a valid ID is asked for at the voting station. And with fewer Democrats voting, that is just better for Republicans, right?

Neither side is concerned for the betterment of electoral procedures.

Rather than espouse my views on this topic, I will give you some Canadian history on electoral procedures.

When I was in party politics (circa 1990), the rules for general elections in Canada had a few loose ends. Paid enumerators were assigned an area and interviewed residents on the doorstep. The enumerators would take names, addresses, and phone numbers of each voting-age person in the area. The enumerators never asked for official ID or proof of Canadian citizenship. As well, if they couldn’t find anyone at home after three tries, the residents were just not enumerated. Their names did not go on the voters’ list. 

The information from all enumerators was compiled into a computerized database. The election officials and political parties had copies of this database.

When a citizen went to vote, he or she was instructed (by various means) to his or her voting station. Once at the station, the citizen need only say “I am Joe Smith.” If the name of Joe Smith was on the list, the citizen was given a ballot. The name of Joe Smith was then crossed off as having voted. No ID was required.

Canada has about 300 federal constituencies. In any given election, maybe 30 or 40 are close races. The margins of the other races were wide enough to safely say that a little bit of cheating or poor administration was not going to change the result.

But in some of those close races, there was cheating. Political parties were allowed to send scrutineers to the voting stations. While these party workers could not touch the ballots, some were recording who voted and who didn’t vote. Ostensibly the purpose for this recording was to let the party campaign office know which supporters did not vote; the office would then try to call the supporter to encourage them to vote.

But what often happened in these close races is the scrutineer would get active about a half hour before the poll closed. They would report, “Joe Smith has not yet voted.” Then the campaign office would send a party worker to the voting station, who would say “I’m Joe Smith” and get a ballot that went in the party’s favor. A dishonest scrutineer at a poll could get another three or more votes for his or her party. Multiply that by 200 voting stations, and that party gets a nice edge in that close constituency race.

The viable parties were often doing this cheating in close races. They justified their illegality by saying that the other parties were doing it, so they were just trying to make an even playing field. Losing a close race while taking the high road meant four years of being a loser!

And there were cases of the real Joe Smith coming to the voting station a few minutes before the poll closed to find someone else had already voted on his behalf!

While these shenanigans probably changed the true result in only a handful of constituency elections, Elections Canada decided that the cheating was sufficient to discredit the electoral result. It started instituting voter ID around the year 2000. Of course, the driver’s license was sufficient. So too were passports and birth certificates. Elections Canada even allowed utility bills with the voter’s name and address as a valid ID. Even a fishing license!

Even though Elections Canada did a lot of messaging to get people informed of this change, introducing it did not go easy. Many voters were a little annoyed at pulling out their driver’s license, citing government intrusion into their privacy. Some were annoyed at having to go home to get some ID and return. Some did not return to vote. A few vowed never to vote again.

But as the federal and provincial and municipal elections came and went, people got more used to bringing ID to the voting station. Today, pulling out ID to get a ballot is rarely an issue in Canada.

Having voter ID cuts down on cheating, but more importantly it contributes to the credibility of the electoral process. But it takes a few elections for people to get used to the new way.

So I would say that the Republicans are right on this issue. Voter ID does improve democracy. But the Republicans are not motivated by what is right: they just want to see the Democrats get fewer votes. And the Democrats, by stalling this needed change, give the impression they are more about their own self-interest than about improving democracy. They want to keep whatever edge they currently hold over the Republicans.

Electoral structures need to evolve as society changes and experiments. The American version of western democracy shows that it cannot evolve for the right reasons.

It’s time for the USA to develop a new system: a system for the people, not the parties.

Published on Medium 2020

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