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Commentary: Photo ID is not needed for elections

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2012 - In his candidate statement for the Beacon, Republican Shane Schoeller said his first priority if elected secretary of state would be a law requiring voters to show a photo ID before they can cast a ballot. Although Schoeller was not elected, this idea is likely to be taken up by the legislature next year. I believe it a troubling proposal for several reasons.

Proponents say that a photo ID requirement is needed to prevent voter impersonation fraud, in which someone tries to vote in the name of another person or a fictitious person. However, voter impersonation fraud is extremely rare.

The most comprehensive examination of election fraud in the nation was conducted by News21, a consortium of journalism schools. News21 found only 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud in the United States since 2000, and none of those cases occurred in Missouri. Recent research by the political scientists Lorraine Minnite and Delia Bailey reached similar conclusions about the infrequency of voter fraud. Those pushing for a new voting requirement would tackle a problem that has never occurred in Missouri in at least 12 years.

Voter impersonation fraud is extremely rare because existing laws and voting procedures effectively deter it. Missouri law already requires polling place voters to show identification, such as a voter identification card, utility bill or driver’s license.

Walking into a polling place pretending to be someone else is an incredibly brazen and stupid act that is easy to catch. The election workers at a polling place typically live in the neighborhood they are serving and are likely to catch on quickly if an imposter pretends to be one of their neighbors.

More common types of election fraud occur through absentee voting or when election or party officials try to stuff the ballot box behind closed doors. Requiring voters at polling places to show a photo ID does not prevent either of those more common sources of fraud.

The argument that the secret ballot prevents the investigation and prosecution of voter fraud is also false. Poll workers can serve as witnesses if someone is prosecuted for voter impersonation fraud. In addition, Missouri voters must sign their name in a poll book before receiving a ballot. If the signature in the poll book does not match the signature, the election office already has on file, that is further evidence to prosecute someone for fraud. Investigators don’t need to see the secret ballot to determine whether voter fraud has occurred.

A photo ID requirement may be a barrier to voting for eligible voters who lack a valid Missouri driver’s license. While estimates vary, thousands of Missouri voters do not have a qualifying photo ID. Several studies indicate that a photo ID requirement would disproportionately burden college students, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and the poor. The proposal to provide a free photo ID to any voter who does not have a driver’s license means added costs for the state. Proponents of a photo ID requirement have a duty to indicate how much that is likely to cost Missouri taxpayers.

The voting public is evidently becoming more skeptical of a photo ID requirement as a common sense solution. In the election on Tuesday Minnesota voters rejected a photo ID requirement similar to one proposed by Missouri Republicans.

The secretary of state’s duties include registering new businesses, protecting Missouri residents from securities fraud and serving as the top election official. These duties provide many challenges for the next person to take that office. For example, in the previous general election the statewide voter database did not function properly, and in the last presidential election more than 4,000 absentee ballots sent to Missouri residents in the military or living abroad were not returned or were not counted. With all of the serious challenges facing the next secretary, a photo ID requirement should not be a top priority.

David Kimball is a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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