Voting is a fundamentally important activity of government that just about everyone can agree should be done well. So it is terribly disheartening to read about a new law in Pennsylvania which requires a driver's license or similar photo ID in order to vote in the state, which over 750,000 current Pennsylvania voters, or 9% of registered voters, don't have.
What exactly is the plan for Pennsylvanians who don't have the right ID on Election Day? Will they be allowed to cast their votes and prove their citizenship later? Can such a process of proof be done without economic disincentives, such as being required to be in a government office for a few hours on a weekday or having to get across town without a car or decent public transportation?
If so, then I don't know why everyone's getting so fired up about over voter ID laws. If not, I'd have to ask, why not? How much could it really cost to put into place a system that would ensure that every eligible American who wants to vote can do so?
One particularly cost-effective way to combat voter fraud, which doesn't require our government to turn away some statistically significant number of our fellow citizens who want to vote, is to adopt the purple finger ink practice used in elections in Iraq and, last week, in Libya. Proponents of voter ID laws claim a danger of people voting multiple times using multiple people's names. The use of the semi-permanent stain, which will come off relatively soon but not on Election Day, makes such a tactic impossible.
There would still be a danger of immigrants voting, I suppose. So even with everyone dipping a finger, you would still have to have a process to screen out non-citizens. In order to give every citizen their vote, we should be willing to spend quite a bit of money, just as we spent lots of money to help the Iraqis and Libyans get their purple fingers. A simple but possibly-inefficient solution would be to have lots of DMV workers at the polling places to go through the process of getting people their IDs instantaneously. Since hiring extra DMV/Census type workers to facilitate the verification of people's identities will likely come cheaper than fighting several wars at once, I'm pretty sure we can handle it, particularly given that the purple dye thing would already make fraud a pretty unappealing prospect.
A more effective and efficient approach was comes from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who suggested last year that she would personally drive any South Carolinian without ID to the DMV to get one. Gov. Haley would of course need help in her goal, so I would suggest we hire (or incentivize) drivers and other workers necessary to help citizens get their proper IDs. We could set up a 1-800 number and flood the airwaves with advertisements offering registration assistance.
Regarding cost, I can't claim to know enough to give a firm answer. But based on the cost of the 2010 Census, $13 billion, it is unlikely to break the bank. $13 billion works out to $42 for every living person in the country, and that kind of money pays for a lot of poll workers and rides to the DMV, particularly when the purple finger requirement screens out the cheaters and allows resources to be focused on those who really need them. With all the money thrown around on Wall Street and around the world, surely a few billion to put Americans to work helping other Americans vote is something we could all agree on.
Finally, the purple finger ink might take on a role like the ashes on the foreheads of Catholics, as a marker of principle or identity. It's a mega-super "I voted today" sticker, and it's one that encourages identification/solidarity with people around the world who believe that using one's finger to vote, not to pull a trigger, is the best way to establish a government. It is a (semi-permanent) reminder of the importance of voting, and of the value that is rightly placed on it.