AMY FRIED

Voter photo ID — another bad, and costly, idea

Posted Jan. 17, 2012, at 4:33 p.m.

With Maine’s strong, accessible system of voting, why mess with success? And, given all our urgent budgetary needs, why ask Maine’s taxpayers to pay for all the U.S. Supreme Court requires for a system of photo identification for voters?

Maine’s legislators voted twice on voting last session. The Legislature passed and Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill to end Maine’s nearly 40-year tradition of Election Day registration. Through a people’s veto, Maine people spoke loud and clear, turning aside evidence-free claims of fraud and restoring the practice by a resounding 60-40 landslide.

In the same session, the House passed LD 199, which would require photo identification to vote. After the Senate voted “no,” it was put aside and is scheduled for the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee next week.

Problems with ending Election Day registration were easy to see. People who recently moved within Maine or worked many hours or came to Maine for military service, studies or a new job or changed their names would have faced new barriers to casting their votes.

Photo identification also has problems and, unlike ending Election Day registration, would be very costly.

And by costly, I mean real dollars. At the same time, a photo ID requirement would have a differential effect on some citizens, making it harder for them to vote. In fact, the finances and the impact are linked.

A study by the respected Brennan Center finds that nationally, “11 percent of American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID; that is over 21 million citizens.” If that percentage sounds high for Maine, it isn’t. The Fiscal Note for Maine’s LD 199 assumes that “10 percent of registered voters do not currently have either a driver’s license or identification card, that would equal 97,000 people.”

In other words, nearly 100,000 Maine people could have their access to the vote limited should a photo identification bill be adopted. And the requirement will bring new costs because, while the U.S. Supreme Court found photo identification constitutional, the court required states to provide these free to people needing them to vote who cannot afford them. That’s because the 24th Amendment prohibits poll taxes.

As the Brennan Center points out, “providing free IDs will be a recurring cost … and states will have to bear the costs of re-issuing new IDs for these voters whenever their names or addresses change.”

Requiring voters to show a driver’s license or its substitute for nondrivers would be very expensive, since states with this requirement have been required to add new workers and locations to issue these government IDs. (In Wisconsin, politics came into play with plans to shut down locations in Democratic areas and open new ones in Republican-leaning ones.)

Since the implementation of the federal REAL ID, you can’t get a state ID without producing other documents, such as a passport or a birth certificate. Women, who often change their names when marrying or divorcing, are less likely to have those with their current names. Taxpayers would have to pay for these documents for Mainers who don’t have and can’t afford them.

Imagine an elderly person who has moved out of her decades-long home since last voting. She hasn’t had a driver’s license since her eyesight began failing five years ago. Without a passport, she’d have to get a copy of her birth certificate — something not always possible for people born before modern record-keeping — and have someone take her to get a photo ID. These multiple steps would have to be done before voting and likely would be hard to arrange.

Now, Maine’s proposed law doesn’t actually spell out what identification would be required. But with ID requirements, the devil is in the details, leaving room for political mischief. You can see that in Texas, where a concealed gun permit is OK for voting but a college identification card is not.

Maine’s LD 199 leaves it to the secretary of state’s discretion to create the “technical rule” that would determine the identification needed to vote. The bill’s lack of specifics create uncertainty, even mystery.

Mainers shouldn’t discover what reality unfolds from that mystery nor bear the costs of a new law affecting voters.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ASFried and on her blog, pollways.com.

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