It is an obviously basic and critical integrity requirement that only registered voters be permitted to vote and that each be limited to one vote per election. When voters check in at a polling place, their names are looked up in the voter rolls to be certain they are entitled to vote. As soon as a voter is approved to vote, the records are marked to show that he or she has voted in the current election.
It is equally important to verify that voters are, in fact, who they say they are. The simplest, easiest and most widely acceptable way to accomplish that is for the voter to show a photo-ID (e.g. a driver’s license). Requiring a photo ID to vote is nearly universal among all modern democracies. The US, where only about half the states require a photo-ID, is a glaring exception.
A “blue ribbon” commission, known as the Carter-Baker Commission, was formed in 2005 to study US elections and recommend changes and improvements. It was jointly chaired by former president Jimmy Carter (a Democrat) and former Secretary of State James Baker (a Republican). Chief among the commission’s very sensible recommendations was the universal use of photo-IDs.
Polls consistently show that roughly 80% of citizens believe that a photo-ID should be required to vote. That is as close to unanimous as polls ever get. Wherever this has not been made law, it clearly is the fault of the elected politicians. Their specious excuse is that this would place an unnecessary burden on voters and result in voter suppression!?
States are beginning a transition from the traditional bulky paper “poll books” of registered voters to electronic poll books. A possible alternative to a photo-ID might then be simply to snap a picture of each voter as they check in. It would be compared to photos of the voter from previous elections which would appear on the screen. This would place absolutely no burden on voters, so it would be interesting to hear what the excuse would be for not doing that.
Wherever photo-IDs are not required, the predominant fallback mechanism employed is some form of signature verification. Signature verification cannot be relied upon for positive voter identification. Worse, it creates a false sense of legitimacy and security. It is worth thinking about this carefully to understand why this is so.
The first problem is that people simply do not always sign their names the same way. Signatures can change radically as people age, suffer from arthritis or perhaps undergo surgery on their writing hand or wrist. The appearance of someone’s signature can be significantly affected by the texture of the surface upon which they are writing, the position they are in, whether or not they are hurrying, how they feel and many other similar factors. Trained handwriting experts sometimes have difficulty and in any case require some time (at least 5 or 10 seconds) to make a determination.
During an election, voters frequently must be processed quickly. The poll workers are not trained handwriting experts. Poll workers who would have the confidence to challenge a voter’s signature for a mismatch are few and far between. This alone renders the process unreliable, and that assumes the poll worker actually makes an attempt to verify the signature. The next time you check in to vote, watch the poll worker and see if he or she makes any effort at all to compare signatures. It is a rather safe bet that zero time will be spent verifying the signatures of more than half the voters.
Thus far, we have assumed that voters are voting at a polling place. There, it is at least possible to implement positive voter identification. It also is a sure thing that the voter who checked in will be the person who votes. But suppose mail-in ballots are being used.
Since voters are not mailed with their ballots, positive voter ID is not possible. As we already know, signature matching is a crap shoot. Imagine tabulators processing thousands of ballots as quickly as possible; not much time to study signatures. Even if signature verification were not a problem, there still is no way to know for sure who actually marked the ballots.
Consider also that workers verifying signatures in a large processing operation could be a vulnerability. A strongly partisan worker processing ballots from a municipality known to vote heavily for the opposition might (either consciously or sub-consciously) reject more signatures. Of course, when processing a municipality known to strongly favor the worker’s party it might be a little harder to find any problems with signatures. Such a subtle bias could never be reliably detected, let alone be successfully prosecuted. Whether it ever actually happens or not, it is the kind of vulnerability that just cannot exist if citizens are ever going to trust results implicitly.
Clearly, there is no way mail-in voting can be made to satisfy this requirement. That should be sufficient reason to prohibit its use. However, we will learn in later lessons that mail-in has even greater problems with some other requirements.