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Voter ID laws cost much, accomplish little

By Del. Jon S. Cardin (MD), State Rep. Ben Cannon (OR), and State Rep. Joe Miklosi (CO), Baltimore Sun, October 10, 2011

A healthy civic society requires protecting citizens' fundamental right to vote while ensuring the integrity of our electoral system. Sadly, this goal is being jeopardized by a coordinated, nationwide effort to enact voter ID laws that will not solve the challenges facing our electoral systems and will instead disenfranchise voters and infringe upon the fundamental American right to free and fair elections.

Proponents of voter ID laws claim that they will reduce fraud. We agree that preventing voter fraud is extremely important. That is why dozens of states and the federal government have created safeguards to ensure voter integrity and passed laws imposing stiff penalties on individuals who commit voter fraud. We should vigorously enforce those laws.

However, it is a grave mistake and a waste of precious resources to enact voter ID laws that target only one extremely rare type of voter fraud — Election Day polling place impersonations — and leave in their wake millions of disenfranchised voters.

Let's look at the facts. The Justice Department under George W. Bush launched a massive, five-year investigation into voter fraud that resulted in a paltry 86 convictions across the entire country. Similarly, a three-year study conducted by Professor Lori Minnite of Barnard College showed that not only is voter fraud a very rare phenomenon, but the vast majority of cases involved people who were either ineligible to vote at all or had voted more than once in an election. Voter ID laws, which only target voter impersonation, would not have done anything to prevent these instances of fraud.

However, the costs of implementing these laws are very real. States must undertake massive public information campaigns, retrain poll workers, account for longer lines on Election Day, and issue millions of free IDs to citizens to avoid running afoul of constitutional mandates. This has the potential to increase electoral costs in some states by as much as 50 percent — tens of millions of dollars.

Over four years, Indiana's strict voter ID law cost taxpayers more than $10 million just to issue new IDs. Estimates by other states projected additional implementation costs of up to $25.2 million in North Carolina over three years, $16.9 million in Missouri over three years.

According to a recent study, it would cost Maryland nearly $100,000 just to hire and train poll workers in order to ensure that any voter ID laws are properly followed, or else potentially face a massive wave of expensive and protracted litigation. Of course, implementing any new law would cost the state tens of millions to issue free IDs, among other education- and election-related expenses.

Given the current fiscal climates in our states, these are unnecessary expenses that taxpayers simply cannot afford. And the likely result is not worth the cost.

The real effect of voter ID laws is not to prevent fraud but to disenfranchise millions of deserving voters. Studies have shown that about 21 million Americans, or 11 percent of eligible voters, currently lack a valid photo ID. However, those percentages rise to as high as 25 percent for African-Americans, 15 percent for low-income voters, 18 percent for seniors and 20 percent for voters under 30. You may notice a pattern here: many of these demographic groups are progressive base voters.

A wide array of voices from across our political spectrum — including well-respected nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters and conservative politicians like Jon Husted, the Republican Secretary of State from Ohio — all agree that voter ID laws simply do not work; they are too expensive and ineffective, and take away the rights of honest Americans.

State legislatures should focus instead on addressing the real problems in our electoral process, which have less to do with voter fraud and more to do with that fact that our antiquated voter registration systems are in desperate need of an upgrade. The existing patchwork of laws and procedures actually leaves the system more vulnerable to fraud.

Modern approaches, like online voter registration, increase the accuracy of voter records and ensure that the information goes directly to election officials. By reducing the number of people who handle a voter application, we can decrease the likelihood of human error and enhance the security of our registration process. We are proud that in our states, these initiatives and others like them have increased access to the polls for millions of new, eligible voters while drastically lowering costs for taxpayers. For example, in Maryland, online voter registration utilizes high security data encryption and has reduced registration costs by 96 percent, to just 3 cents per registrant.

The campaign by narrow special interests to strip away the fundamental rights of our citizens through voter ID requirements is disingenuous. There are far better methods to address the challenges in our electoral systems, and we urge our colleagues across the country to join us in modernization efforts that will maximize voter access, reduce costs to taxpayers, improve security and help us stay true to the bedrock principles upon which our country was founded.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Democrat, represents Maryland's 11th District; Ben Cannon and Joe Miklosi are state legislators from Oregon and Colorado, respectively. Both are Democrats. Also contributing to this article is Cristina Francisco-McGuire with the Progressive States Network.