Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Voting Commission Not Much Help

September 27, 2005

As many of you are no doubt aware, the Commission on Federal Election Reform has recently submitted its recommendations to secure and smooth the U.S. elections process. Among their recommendations are the significant steps of organizing voter registration at the state instead of the local level and rotating regional primaries to prevent early caucus states from having a disproportionate impact on the nomination process.

In an interview with PBS, former President Carter, who has spent a substantial amount of goodwill work inspecting worldwide elections since his presidency ended, said that he felt the main difference between the American elections and those of the rest of the world is that many other countries have bipartisan or nonpartisan election commissions which set voting standards all over the country. Although Carter recognizes that under the federal system of government, individual states must remain responsible for their own election commissions, he encouraged them “to make sure that every election official in charge of the election is patently nonpartisan.”

One of the recommendations that concerns me, however, turns on the recent REAL ID Act, which sets national standards for driver’s licenses that, in fact, amount to the establishment of a system of national IDs on top of Social Security numbers. The Act, which was buried in a bill appropriating funds for the Iraq War, not only establishes specific information the card must carry, it also mandates that they must be “machine readable” in a way to be determined by the Department of Homeland Security at a later time. The DHS has gone on the record saying they like the idea of using RFID tags to fulfill this function, meaning that if a citizen so much as walks through a receiver, their basic personal information and a certain amount of biometric data such as fingerprints or retinal scans can be instantly read and catalogued.

Carter said that requiring Americans to present photo IDs when voting will help not only to secure the election process against fraud but to ensure voter confidence, and he immediately pointed out that the simple addition of a statement declaring the bearer of a national ID card to be a citizen would fulfill this recommendation perfectly. The commission insists that whatever method of voter ID the government eventually settles on, it must be free to avoid becoming effectively a poll tax. Carter specifically referred to Georgia’s $20 charge for a five-year state ID in combination with the requirement that citizens present these IDs to vote as an example of exactly the type of implicit poll tax the commission wishes to avoid. The national IDs proposed by the Act, however, are likely to be extremely expensive thanks to the sophisticated technology the government expects to imbed in them, possibly weighing in at over $100 per person.

In the face of widespread skepticism concerning digital voting booths, the commission has also proposed a paper receipt system that prints a permanent copy for the vote-counters to keep and a copy for the voter himself to keep to back up the digital record. Of course, an alteration causing different outputs from these two printers in addition to the digital record is only slightly more complicated than a simple vote-change hack. A voter receipt system is a band-aid on a gunshot wound. In the face of accusations of an altered vote, such receipts serve no purpose unless every single voter keeps his receipt and can tender it as proof of his vote for a recount and comparison (unless, of course, the government keeps track of who votes which way). The simple fact is that it is a much, much easier job to change a one to a zero in a computer than it is to change a hole in a card, a mark on a slip of paper, or any of the other more substantial methods used to record votes. Something as important as a federal election should not even be placed at risk of such an attack.

In short, the commission came back with a lot of good ideas, several restatements of what everyone already knew were good ideas, and some ineffectual fixes for bad policies. They really can’t be held accountable for the passing of the REAL ID Act, though I think the recommendation that voting rights be tied up in it is abhorrent, and their attempts to mitigate the effects of the touch screen vote are laudable if inadequate. Will it change voting as we know it? Likely not, but it’s nice to have Jimmy Carter’s advice on the record.

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