Sunday, September 25, 2005

For a real debate over REAL ID's

Is it possible to have a real debate about the REAL id?

An editorial in today's St. Petersburg Times typifies the short of shallow thinking that has surrounded the Carter Baker commission proposal an identification requirement at the polling place.

First, the Times claims that the identification requirement discriminates against individuals who do not have proper documentation (birth certificate, social security card).

But wait! How can such individuals register in the first place--don't they need such documents to even get on the rolls? Requiring an ID at the polls will not reduce turnout among people without proper Idocuments because they'll never have been registered in the first place.

Second, the Times makes the bad Katrina analogy. The survivors of Katrina, they argue, would have a hard time coming up with proper documentation and would be disenfranchised.

Of course, this is policy making of the lowest common denominator. We should not fashion our election laws based on the worst natural disaster to hit the US in a century or longer. Of course, we should figure out ways to ensure that hurricane evacuees--and anyone displaced by a natural or man made disaster--has their voting rights assured. But that is a special, particular case, and one that requires a special, particular solution. (In fact, Mike Alvarez, Thad Hall, and I are proposing to study just this kind of circumstance. )

REAL Id's should be debated on their merits, not on made up crises or extreme scenarios. The relevant considerations are:

  • Are Americans ready for a national ID card? American's historical distrust of central government says "no."
  • Can ID cards be made free? They must be in order to be equitable.
  • Can the other required documentation be made very low cost or free? Theoretically there is no reason to say "yes" but this requires coordinating across literally thousands of local jurisdictions.
  • Can we formulate a way to subject absentee ballots to the same level of scrutiny? The answer is "yes" -- there are technological solutions out there, if we'd only adopt them Thumbprint technology, for example, as high-tech as it sounds, is actually quite inexpensive and reliable.


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