At first blush, stricter voter identification laws might seem to be a good idea.
Laws requiring voters to present an ID at the polls have now been passed in 33 states with the idea that they make it harder for a person to come to the polls pretending to be someone they are not.
But as the laws have been implemented in other states, the results show they uncovered very little fraud of that variety — deception in-person at the polls. For example, a statewide study in Ohio several years ago found four instances of ineligible people attempting to vote in the 2002 and 2004 elections, out of 9 million votes cast.
That could be because it is just not a very efficient way to game the system. In federal elections, perpetrators would face up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. So, a party or candidate would have to convince hundreds of voters to take that risk to have any substantial impact on the outcome of an election.
Where fraud seems to be most prevalent is with absentee ballots, vote buying and crooked politicians and election officials. That is certainly what we have seen in West Virginia, but the Voter ID bill passed by the West Virginia House last week would do nothing to prevent those types of shenanigans.
As voter ID laws go, the Mountain State proposal is not too demanding. Voters could present any government-issued photo ID card, including a driver's license or student ID. Medicare and Social Security cards also would be accepted, even without photo. There also are provisions for someone without an ID to vote if other adults vouch for them.
Republican supporters acknowledge that there is little evidence of this type of fraud in West Virginia, but they argue that the ID bill will build more confidence in the election system and encourage more people to vote. Opponents contend the effect is just the opposite — that the additional requirements discourage voters who lack IDs, typically the elderly, the poor and minorities.
There are studies supporting both sides of the argument, but political scientists at the University of California, San Diego, are finalizing one of the most comprehensive looks at the issue. In their working paper, those researchers conclude that voter ID laws do decrease turnout, not just among Democratic-leaning groups but among Republicans, as well.
That will be a key point to follow should the ID proposal be signed into law.
For West Virginia — where voter participation already is very low — a new law that discourages turnout would be a real step backward.