Oct 24, 2011

Voter Identification, National ID, E-Verify, etc.

Recently a co-worker and I were discussing voter identification in the context of some state, which I have since forgotten specifically, passing or possibly attempting to pass some law requiring it. He was in favor of it and I, unsurprisingly, was against it. The details aren't important, really, because I want to elaborate on some broader points.

As I see it, my co-worker was making two big fundamental mistakes.

Forest for the Trees

He was totally in favor of some kind of identification, even a "simple card program" or something, that would "cut down on the [current] ease of voter fraud." In his mind, this would be just like driver's license requirements or requiring to see identification when being pulled over.

Since I work in IT and we're both programmers, why don't we start with some basic specs for this program of his? For simplicity's sake, let's ignore the fact that he has completely misunderstood the difference between a privilege (driving) and a right (voting). This program would, ostensibly, provide a card, possibly with a photo (he wasn't specific), issued at the time of registration and presented at the time of voting to verify identification of the voter. Anyone without a card would be denied the right to vote in the election that day unless they could come up with it before the polls closed. This is the "very simple program" he would like.

Here are just a small sample of the myriad unanswered questions that would come up during and after the design of his program:

  • What is required to register initially? Birth certificate, social security, etc.?
  • How many different forms would be required? One or two? More?
  • How would birth certificates be validated? Social security numbers? Who would do the validating? What system would be used, if any?
  • Who will oversee all this validation and make sure there isn't any wrong-doing here (which, I would point out, would negate the whole point of this elaborate system)?
  • Would it include a photo? A name? How much other info?
  • Would a driver's license be a valid substitute?
  • Who would administer all this? What department would implement it? Run it?
  • How would all of this be funded? How would it be appropriated in the budget? Who would set its budget? What happens if it were to be cut or defunded?
  • Would this be required at the state or federal level? If state, how will it differ in each state (presumably to comply with existing variations in state voting laws)? Would other states recognize each others IDs?
  • Regardless of state/federal, under what constitutional authority would allow for the creation of this requirement?

I'm sure by now you get the point and you can probably think of more questions yourself. Each of those questions could warrant pages and pages of documentation, deliberation, debate, and so on.

As I've learned is so often the case, things are always more complicated than they seem. If you're only looking at your feet it's easy to think that your "simple solutions" would only affect the ground immediately underneath you. Such narrow-minded thinking is common though. We're really best suited for smaller picture-able problem solving. As soon as things start getting into big numbers or big scale, our ability to imagine and comprehend starts to falter. We really cannot fathom it and we tend to label it "in the abstract" even though technically it is just as real and as concrete in the small scale as it is in the macro scale.

This "simple solution" would be, in all likelihood, an enormous burden to government resources (money, time, and manpower), rife with cut corners, and ripe for corruption due to its many parts and most likely lack of quality oversight. This is how things typically turn out, despite best intentions to the contrary. There is no reason to believe that this particular program would be any different.

A Lack of Skepticism

Worse yet and more fundamental even than narrow thinking, this whole solution begs the question: is there even a problem to solve?

How many false ballots are cast? How many corpses are voting? How many elections would have turned out differently if fraud had been prevented? Where is the evidence that voter fraud is even an issue?

Quite frankly whenever anyone starts suggesting horrendous solutions (as my previous point predicts it to be), my first inclination is to be skeptical of whether we even need a solution to begin with. Prove to me first that there is a problem and then we can debate the merits of solutions to it.

Hell, you can't even really provide a true solution until you know the problem you're trying to solve. And I mean really know the problem. You should research the problem thoroughly to make sure that it exists, that your solution would solve it, and that you're solving it in the best way possible under the circumstances. How can you hope to prove your solution fulfills any of those requirements when you haven't even defined the problem precisely?

Future topic: Even more fundamental to all of this voter identification debate or even the need for skepticism and such is the question of identity itself. How do/should we identify the individual? How do you know who you are? How do others? How much can change before you are someone else? How do we know in either case? Buddhism loves to tackle this one, since they recognize (and rightly so!) how fundamental this premise is to damn near everything else.

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