Photo Finish: Should Voters Show ID?

Under Arkansas law, poll workers are required to ask voters to show ID when they vote, but voters are free to decline. That rule has the primary effect of convincing law-abiding citizens that the system works while completely failing to deter someone who wants to impersonate someone else at the ballot box and commit vote fraud.

About a third of our states require voters to show ID when they vote. About 80 percent of the American people think it’s a good idea. That’s why Arkansas Rep. Bryan King and I introduced a bill in the House State Agencies Committee to require proof of identity at the polling place.

The bill had some exceptions. For instance, if a voter had a religious or moral objection to carrying or showing ID, the bill required voters without IDs to sign an affidavit and cast a provisional ballot, so we could figure out how big the problem is. We also provided for a free photo ID for voters who couldn’t afford one. (See for yourself — read the full text of the bill here, in PDF format.)

We were surprised to hear skepticism from some committee members about whether vote fraud really took place in Arkansas. Everybody knows it does. That is why Larry Gray, a Quorum Court member in Phillips County, pled guilty to numerous offenses involving voter fraud a few years ago. That is why we had a unanimous bipartisan committee in the state Senate which alleged that the recent race for Senator Jack Crumbly’s seat was “flagrant” with fraud.

But will our laws currently on the books catch small-scale fraud? Everybody knows that they do not. Under current law there is no way to catch small-scale voter fraud or enforce our laws against it.

Is small-scale fraud enough to change the outcome of elections? Everybody knows it is. I won my 2006 runoff by about 40 votes. Two of my colleagues on our committee won their 2006 primaries by 9 and 3 votes, respectively. A few fraudulent votes can make a big difference.

If you have never watched a polling place in action, you should: You will see something very interesting. When people pull out their ID and see that there’s no requirement for the pollworker to look at it, you can almost read their mind. They’re thinking: “What’s stopping someone else from showing up and giving my name and voting for me?” The answer is: practically nothing.

The official report of the Carter-Baker election reform commission — co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter — called for a photo ID requirement. When speaking of voter fraud, the commission concluded that “there is no doubt that it occurs” and that voter fraud “could affect the outcome of close elections.”

Regrettably, our system does a terrible job of policing vote fraud. No matter how large the penalties, the election thieves are typically not prosecuted.  In Pulaski County in 2008, there are at least 17 people who double voted (both at early voting and on election day), according to the election commission. The prosecutor has taken no action. In the Crumbly election, despite the fact that there was a universal consensus that fraud took place, the local prosecutor decided not to prosecute. It is simply too hard to prove under our current laws.

Our state legislature thinks that preventing impersonation in some circumstances is very important. That is why we passed Act 390 earlier this year, by 99-1 in the House, which says that if you want to sell scrap metal, you have to provide photo ID. Indeed, if you want to sell a dollar’s worth of scrap metal, you are required to go through an extensive process in which your license is copied, you have to give your thumbprints, and your photo is taken.

I think that preserving the integrity of the ballot is just as valuable as setting up a security apparatus to catch a few copper thieves.

But not everyone agrees. Our bill lost narrowly in committee on Friday. It was a straight party-line vote. The bill’s prospects were not assisted when Rep. Davy Carter asked Arkansas Dept. of Finance and Administration bureaucrat Mike Munns who had asked him to speak against the bill. Munns replied that he was asked to speak against the bill by Tim Leathers, Richard Weiss and the office of Gov. Mike Beebe.