What is “Voluntary Voter ID”?

Posted on May 30th, 2014 by

My professional work lately has focused on “electronic pollbooks” – computer systems used for administrative functions at polling places, such as checking in preregistered voters and processing same-day voter registration applications. In particular, I served this past year on the Minnesota legislature’s bipartisan task force on this topic, to which I was appointed based on technical expertise. Thus, I sat up and paid attention when Dan Severson, in explaining why the MN GOP should endorse him for Secretary of State, cited electronic pollbooks as the key for his “voluntary voter ID” proposal. So, what exactly was he proposing? His web site doesn’t go very far toward answering that, but putting it together with some context helps.

In fact, his web site itself doesn’t seem to currently have any more than the phrase itself. But I found more at http://us8.campaign-archive2.com/?u=8065d0de9c27f3dca7f3fc823&id=7f4e2199ca as follows:

1. Voluntary Voter ID will result in expedited voting. If you are willing to scan your government issued driver’s license, general identification card, military ID etc., you will be able to access express lane voting booths. 

The bill our task force drafted, which passed the legislature nearly unanimously and was signed into law, provides that local election administrators can use electronic pollbooks to expedite voter checkin and registration. Those are typically the bottlenecks. Occasionally the ballot scanner is.  On the rare occasion that the booths themselves are a problem, it can be easily and cheaply resolved for all voters – all it takes to open up six more booths is an ordinary folding banquet table, a few pieces of cardboard for privacy screens, and a half dozen pens. I don’t see how it makes sense for the already overburdened election judges to manage traffic through two different lanes when all voters can readily be accommodated with booths.  (Keep in mind also that some of the voters who would have the most physical difficulty waiting in line are less likely to have a driver’s license.)

As far as the specifics of what cards are scannable, the enacted law requires electronic pollbooks be able to scan Minnesota drivers licenses and identification cards. Military IDs turn out to be challenging because they do not have the same information. For example, they are lacking residence address. In recent years, they also no longer have social security numbers, so there’s no number in common with the registration database. However, to the extent election officials and their vendors are able to accommodate scanning other ID cards (whether military, college, or any other), the law permits them to do so.

The recently enacted law does not mandate that every precinct in the state would have this technology, because in most of the state’s thousands of precincts, there aren’t enough voters to make the expense worthwhile. Is Severson proposing that all precincts be equipped? He doesn’t say. If not, his proposal sounds a lot like what was already passed into law. Conversely, if he wants to mandate the equipment, that’s a major expense.

2. The scan will automatically verify with the SOS office citizenship, residency, proper polling place and the valid ability to vote. If an individual has a voting restriction for some reason, it will alert the election judge on site and prevent voter fraud. Or if the voter simply went to the wrong precinct, then that voter will be assisted to the correct location.

The already enacted law provides that the electronic pollbook will “immediately alert the election judge if the voter has provided information that indicates that the voter is not eligible to vote; … if the electronic roster indicates that a voter has already voted in that precinct, the voter’s registration status is challenged, or it appears the voter resides in a different precinct.”

So what more does Severson want? Again, he doesn’t make this entirely clear. It sounds like he thinks there will be direct, real-time communication between the electronic pollbook and the SOS office, and that this will allow some extra checking of such matters as citizenship. Our task force determined that real time communication was not possible in all parts of the state and would have detrimental consequences for system reliability and security. More fundamentally, the SOS office has no additional ability to verify citizenship.  Much as you might want there to be some database to check and see who is and who isn’t a citizen, it just doesn’t exist.

3. In using Voluntary Voter ID, the SOS will better be able to maintain the Safe at Home Program, a special service offered to victims of abuse and others who may have a need to conceal their addresses to avoid physical or emotional harm. Because no verbal interchange will be required, all information is kept confidential between the election judge and the constituent.

Again, I don’t see what’s new here. As far as the Safe at Home program itself goes, existing procedures protect those individuals by allowing them to vote as ongoing absentee voters and by double checking that their address is not in the polling place roster. As far as the broader desire of other voters for privacy, even in a precinct without electronic pollbooks, there’s nothing to prevent a voter from showing their name to the election judge in written form rather than saying it aloud, and the scanning of cards is (as mentioned above) already part of the recently enacted law.

So, having considered Severson’s points one by one, the only really new thing seems to be the “express lane” proposal, which I don’t consider particularly viable. But maybe there’s more – something that Severson didn’t say, but may have encoded into the name of his proposal. I say that because “voluntary voter ID” already had an established meaning across the border in Wisconsin, where it was rejected. There, the proposal was that a voter could indicate on their registration record that they wished to be required to present ID in order to vote. At the polling place, the ID would then not be voluntary: it would be mandatory for those who had opted in. Is Severson suggesting this for Minnesota? It’s hard to tell. Hopefully the press will ask him. In Wisconsin, it was rejected because of the potential for confusion. In any case, it has nothing to do with the electronic pollbook technology that Severson has emphasized, and that was already enacted into law on a bipartisan basis. IDs can be demanded without a computer, and a computer can be used without demanding IDs.


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