A Fool-Proof System To Verify Voter Identities Without Disenfranchising Anyone

Poll workers check voter identification in Florida

Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

The debate over voter identification is getting old. In fact, it’s technologically obsolete. An election system that was immune to voter impersonation but didn’t prevent eligible voters from casting ballots actually wouldn’t be hard to build. In addition, election workers would throw out fewer ballots because of discrepancies in voter records in such a system.

“If states were really dedicated both to the convenience of voters and to the security of the ballot, you could use technology in a very simple way that we encounter every day to achieve both things,” MIT political science professor Charles Stewart told me. Stewart is one of the directors of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, a group of researchers who have been studying how technology can improve the election system since the aftermath of the 2000 election.

In a report published last month, the researchers made a simple proposal for voter authentication: use the data states already have to make sure people are who they say they are.

States maintain all kinds of data on citizens. Since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 in response to the train wreck that was the 2000 election, they also maintain electronic voter registration databases.

Digital voter rolls have already made the election system more accurate and responsive. “Those are a big change, a big transition that’s occurring behind the scenes,” said Caltech political science professor Michael Alvarez, who is the Voting Technology Project’s other director.

Integrating those databases with existing databases, such as those maintained by state motor vehicle departments and public assistance programs, would make transcription errors in a voter’s name or address obvious. Fewer voters would see their ballots challenged because of clerical mistakes.

As Stewart explained to me, poll workers wouldn’t have to ask voters to show drivers’ licenses. They could just check the driver’s license photo on file with the state using the tablet computers specially designed for election administration, called electronic pollbooks, that many election workers already carry. To allow voters without drivers’ licenses or other identification to vote, Stewart said the pollbooks could be outfitted with small digital cameras. Poll workers could then take pictures of first-time voters and keep those photos on file for the next time the individual comes to cast a ballot.

Would-be imposters—if there are any—would only be able to steal votes from people who both hadn’t voted before and didn’t have a driver’s license photo on file. Moreover, the knowledge that a state official would take their picture at the polls would probably deter them.

Integrating databases in this way wouldn’t be difficult. Private companies do it regularly, and the political parties already have frighteningly exhaustive data on voters, compiled from state records as well as from private subscription databases. The Democratic Party’s system has 180 million detailed voter records. Using registration histories from multiple states, parties can tell when a voter moved across state lines, and using purchase records from grocery store customer loyalty programs, they know a voter’s buying habits.

“They know what kind of dog food your dog eats,” Stewart said.

I asked him whether he was exaggerating.

“I’ve seen that data,” he replied.

The technology behind the election system has improved in important ways since 2000. Simply because of the new equipment, the percentage of illegible and improperly marked ballots that election officials have to throw out has fallen from between 3 and 4 percent to about 1.5 percent, according to Stewart.

In addition, some states have adopted portions of the Voting Technology Project’s proposals for more reliable elections. Michigan and Delaware have begun integrating some of their state databases. In implementing its new voter identification law, New Hampshire plans to take photos of voters at the polls, which to Stewart is a step in the right direction. Several states allow voters to register at the polls, which means election workers have a channel to send data about voters to the state. Two-way communication will be important for a more technologically sophisticated voting system.

Voting machines are still malfunctioning on occasion. All the same, technology does promise a more secure, dependable voting system—if politicians are willing to use a little common sense.