Think back, but just 10 months before 9/11, the US endured a different trauma: A knife-edge constitutional crisis over the 2000 presidential election that hung on a few hundred votes in Florida. Ever since, states have tried to reform voting systems – with zero tolerance for fraud or mistakes. But at what cost?
While states have moved quickly to electronic voting as one reform, one onerous fix has been more requirements for voters to show a valid ID at the polls. The number of states demanding such identification has doubled since 2000 to nearly half. And seven states approved rules that require a photo ID to vote. With most Americans favoring voter IDs, this trend may go on.
But as the Nov. 7 midterm elections have drawn near, the ID issue has gone to the courts.
A judge in Georgia overturned that state's ID law for being a form of poll tax. In Missouri, the state's high court ruled last week that the $15 cost of obtaining a birth certificate was too much of a burden to obtain a photo ID for the 3 to 4 percent of voters who don't have one. Arizona's law went all the way to the US Supreme Court which, while not ruling on the merits of the case, let the law go ahead for this election – a signal that it may eventually approve voter IDs.
Obviously, cleaning up the nation's electoral system to prevent another crisis like the Bush-Gore debacle is not going to be easy. And yet in many states where a red-blue political split can easily lead to a disputed election outcome, the need is great to prevent anyone from violating the process, all the way from voter registration to the final count.
The people's faith in the election system must be restored. And the nation that promotes democracy to the world can't allow the kind of legal eye-scratching that was on display for six weeks in 2000, when it was uncertain if the US would even have a president-elect come inauguration day.
The nation is faced with a difficult trade-off: Move toward zero tolerance of fraud that will help restore voter trust while also placing a burden, perhaps even a barrier, to a small percentage of potential voters.
Debate on this issue comes down to two judgments: 1) the extent of current fraud and whether it will influence elections; and 2) whether states can reduce the burden of obtaining IDs to encourage all people to vote.
Governments already charge fees for many legal papers and services, even to the poor. But voting rights are fundamental enough that an ID for that purpose should be free of charge. The poorest voters should not see such a cost as a form of modern-day poll tax.
As for accepting some fraud, the number of proven cases is small, but the damage to voter confidence from just a few cases can be huge, enough to keep many people from even voting. In St. Louis, for instance, hundreds of bogus address changes were discovered this month, forcing officials to ask voters to bring a polling-place notification card to the polls. Obviously, that state's high court erred in its assessment by citing a small risk of fraud. Can the Missouri election results now be trusted?
Clean elections are paramount, with voter IDs as one needed tool. And with proper reforms, universal suffrage can also be ensured.