Fair, nonpoliticized voter ID policy still a ways off

Expect to hear a lot more highly politicized rhetoric about the pros and cons of voter ID laws recently passed in 10 states and being tested for the first time in the 2012 general election. But don’t confuse the issue with Washington state’s effort to purge noncitizens from its voter registration list.

The two issues are not completely unconnected, but the controversial voter ID laws, backed by conservative interests since 2010, don’t apply to Washington because we vote by mail. Thankfully, we’re sitting out this debate.

The voter ID laws, such as those enacted in Texas and Pennsylvania, require voters to bring government-issued photo ID cards with them to the polls. Critics of the laws say they are designed to create a partisan advantage because they would have a disproportionate impact on lower-income and minority voters.

Republicans are even bragging about it. Pennsylvania’s state House Republican leader, Mike Turzai, boasted, “Voter ID … is going to allow Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania – done.”

On the other side, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called voter ID laws the modern-day equivalent of a “poll tax,” reminiscent of the Jim Crow era when poor black people were discouraged from voting.

In states like Texas and Pennsylvania voters still go to polling stations to cast ballots. Under these new laws, voters will be required to prove citizenship by producing some form of government-issued photo identification.

Voters who don’t have a driver’s license – in a state that requires proof of citizenship to drive, Washington does not – or some other photo ID must obtain one, often at some inconvenience and expense.

Texas, for example, will issue a voter ID card, to those without a driver’s license or other qualifying identification, for $22, but voters have to visit a state office, supply fingerprints and produce a birth certificate.

Could that affect the outcome of the 2012 presidential election? According to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, about 11 percent of voters in states with voter ID laws do not have valid identification.

Fortunately, most of the debate surrounding voter eligibility doesn’t apply to Washington. According to Katie Blinn, co-director of elections in the Office of the Secretary of State, our elections officials confirm that the person who voted the ballot is the person registered by comparing the signature on the ballot declaration with the signature in the voter registration file.

That system is not without its flaws, however. And that’s why Secretary of State Sam Reed has requested access to a federal immigration database that may help eliminate any noncitizens from the state’s voter list.

Washington state follows the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a measure enacted by Congress after the problems in Florida with the 2000 Bush vs. Gore presidential election. The state has codified the requirements of the HAVA, which were meant to create a consistent standard for voter registration.

The HAVA established that in order to register to vote, a person must provide a driver’s license, state ID or the last four digits of their Social Security number. In the alternative, they can produce a tribal ID, or photocopy of a bank statement, utility bill, etc.

But because Washington does not require proof of citizenship to obtain a state driver’s license, there is no assurance that someone who successfully registered to vote is a citizen and, therefore, legally eligible to vote.

It’s also unclear how the federal immigration database, called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, will help here.

In Colorado, they collect information from legal noncitizens – such as permanent residents and holders of green cards – and retain their alien registration numbers, which they can compare with SAVE.

Washington does not, and without that information it most likely won’t be able to compare our voter registration list to the SAVE database and identify any noncitizens who unlawfully registered to vote.

It sounds confusing, and it is. The solution is for Congress to create a national system for voter registration and voting at polls that includes proof of citizenship, without any of the politically motivated obstacles to exercising the democratic right to vote.

A good start would be apply the vote-by-mail process to every state and, for the most part, eliminate polling stations.