A Breezy Slide From Vote Integrity to National ID

Writing at Slate, Richard Hasen makes the case for nationalizing voter registration.

Yglesias approves (as does Drum at Mother Jones) and he ultimately concludes - though “nobody’s supposed to say this” - that “implementing a National ID Card system would help solve a lot of problems at what looks to me to be an extremely low cost in civil liberties.”

Tell that to the dead in Rwanda. It never occurred to the Belgian government that the identity card system they put in place there would be used to administer genocide 60 years later, but it was.

Bruce Schneier calls it “bad civic hygiene” to build a technology infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state. That’s what a national ID system is.

It’s easy to arrive at facile conclusions about national IDs if you don’t think it all the way through. Joseph Eaton published a book in 1986 called Card Carrying Americans that did just that (and didn’t, as to the thinking through). My write-up of it in 2005 called it “full of ‘would’s and ‘could’s - an exercise in imagination with few tethers to real-world practicalities.”

Same with Hasen’s article:

The federal government could assign each person a unique voter-identification number, which would remain the same regardless of where the voter moves. The unique ID would prevent people from voting in two jurisdictions, such as snowbirds who might be tempted to vote in Florida and New York.

Except that it doesn’t work that way. Simply giving people a unique identifier gets you the Social Security number. To prevent people voting in multiple jurisdictions, you don’t give, you take - take a biometric identifier, database it, and use it at every polling place (leaving the door still wide open to absentee ballot fraud).

Voting issues can’t be solved consistent with our national values quite so glibly. If it were easy, it would already have been done. Thoughtful people should resist, not indulge, the temptation to stab at voting concerns with a national ID.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a national voter registration system converted to lots of purposes that aren’t as congenial as regularizing voter registration. Citing the fate of Rwandans was overly dramatic, of course. It’s only the most recent example among apartheid South Africa, Stalinist Russia, and Nazi-occupied Europe, none of which can happen here … .

What we could expect in the near term would be more and more thorough data collection, tighter and tighter government monitoring of commerce, work, housing, health care, education, and communications - for illegal immigration control, at first. But new uses would accrue with each shift in public urgency.

The most concerning of what Hasen has to say is this:

There’s something in this for both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats talk about wanting to expand the franchise, and there’s no better way to do it than the way most mature democracies do it: by having the government register voters. For Republicans serious about ballot integrity, this should be a winner as well. No more ACORN registration drives, and no more concerns about Democratic secretaries of state not aggressively matching voters enough to motor vehicle databases.

It’s deeply concerning, the prospect of the major political parties uniting against the people to “mature” our democracy and give us a national ID.