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Now that the candidates are selected and the campaigns are well underway, it seems as though politicos are turning an eye to the actual process of voting, and more specifically to ways to combat voter fraud. Pennsylvania is the latest state to require photo identification at the polls, a move that some view as disenfranchising voters in a key state with lots of electoral votes in the mix. In this exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken describes an earlier battle over voter ID laws (the Carter-Baker Commission) to illustrate what happens when you don’t have good data on which to base public policy.
Chuck Myers, Group Publishers of the Social Sciences, provides some additional context:
According to the polls we are facing a very close presidential election in which a few votes in a couple of swing states could determine who our next president will be. And yet our system of voting and counting our votes is a patchwork of local jurisdictions employing various technologies often of dubious quality that manages to lose or miscount thousands of votes in each election.
In addition, allegedly because of fear of possible voter fraud, many states are actually making it harder for citizens to cast their ballots, depriving more voters of their franchise. When an election is a lopsided contest, a few thousand votes one way or the other might not make any difference; however as we saw in Florida in 2000, in a close election miscounted votes–or voters who don’t even have a chance to vote because of their failure to meet purely technical requirements like having an official photo ID– have a real impact.
In The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken explores the problems created by our mismanaged electoral system and offers a solution to the problem, a solution driven by creating competition among jurisdictions for creating systems of voting that make it easier to vote and more certain that the votes will be accurately counted. She calls for an investment in collecting extensive data on the scope of the problem as well as the issue of voter fraud and then sets up a democracy index that will rank jurisdictions according to how well they perform in allowing Americans to perform a basic rite of citizenship.
Click here to download the PDF, A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem.
Spencer Overton’s problem is that he is fighting for change in a world without data. Indeed, he found himself in the middle of one of the biggest election reform battles we’ve seen in recent years—one that made it all the way to the Supreme Court—and lost in large part because he didn’t have the data he needed to make his case.
The fight was over voter identification—the requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID when they cast a ballot at the polls. Voter ID has been a significant source of contention in election circles. Conservative commentators insist that an ID requirement deters fraud. Liberal commentators counter that the requirement is a disguised effort to suppress (largely Democratic) votes.* The rhetoric on both sides of the issue has been quite heated, with one side talking about stolen elections and the other side equating ID requirements with vote suppression.
Overton became embroiled in the issue when it was taken up by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Democratic president Jimmy Carter and former Republican secretary of state James Baker. Though most of the members of the bipartisan commission had strong political ties, it included a handful of academics, including Overton.
The Carter-Baker Commission eventually staked out a position on voter ID that looked an awful lot like a political deal. It roughly tracked the compromise that would emerge if a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican sat down to work out something both sides could live with. The commission blessed the ID requirement (something Republicans usually want) while demanding that the state take affirmative steps to distribute IDs (something that Democrats would want if forced to accept an ID requirement).
Deal or no deal, the main problem with the commission’s position was that it was utterly unsupported by empirical evidence. A pure political compromise can be produced without coming to grips with the empirics; a sound decision cannot. Although the commission did an excellent job of amassing data on how our election system is run in many areas, this was not one where it managed to find much. As the commission itself stated, there is “no extensive evidence of fraud in the United States.” To the extent there is any evidence of fraud, it is almost entirely due to absentee voting scams or ballot-box stuffing, not the type of fraudulent in-person voting that photo ID is supposed to deter. The only other justification that the commission offered for its decision was that a photo ID requirement would enhance public trust in the system. That claim, too, was unsupported by empirical evidence (and may have been misplaced).
Overton did his best to persuade the other members of the commission not to endorse an ID requirement. Most advocates contesting voter ID have simply invoked civil-rights rhetoric. Overton called upon that tradition, but he mainly focused on the kind of cold-blooded cost-benefit arguments that conservatives stereotypically use. Working with the Brennan Center, he tried to amass data on the effects, good and bad, of photo ID. When he failed to change the majority’s mind, he published a forcefully worded dissent. I saw Overton a day after the fight went public. I’ve never seen anyone more exhausted.
The reason Overton faced such an uphill slog is that the data were haphazard and inconsistent. As he discovered, “No systematic, empirical study of the magnitude of voter fraud has been conducted at either the national level or in any state to date.” Nor were there any good studies on an ID requirement’s effect on voter behavior.