Help America Vote

Posted April 29, 2008 at 5:00pm

Along with most Democrats, we regret the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday upholding Indiana’s picture-ID requirement for voting. The Democratic-controlled Congress can do something about it, however: Take action now to improve poll-worker training and voter education under the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

A fierce partisan battle has been raging for years over which is the greater problem — vote fraud (as Republicans claim) or voter suppression (as Democrats claim).

We have seen little concrete evidence that either is a massive problem in the United States, but Indiana (along with Georgia and Florida) requires presentation of a government-issued ID including a photo of the holder before voting as a means of battling fraud at the polls.

Even the Supreme Court majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, acknowledges that “the only kind of voter fraud that [the Indiana law] addresses is in-person voter impersonation at polling places” and “the record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history,” although it cited a few instances elsewhere — such as the discovery of 19 “ghost voters” in Washington state’s hotly contested 2004 gubernatorial race.

The court majority’s decision relied on the theoretical possibility of impersonation and also found that no evidence existed that legitimate voters were overly burdened by the necessity of producing driver’s licenses or passports before voting.

But the court’s minority, led by Justice David Souter, made a convincing case that some 43,000 Indiana citizens, mainly poor people and the elderly, lack driver’s licenses and would find it onerous to find the birth certificates required to obtain a substitute ID.

But the Supreme Court has ruled and now other states are expected to follow Indiana — including some of the 18 states that currently allow non-photo identification (such as utility bills or other proof of residence) and the 23 states that merely meet the minimum HAVA standard of requiring ID for first-time voters who registered by mail.

So, the question becomes: What to do about what amounts to an unfunded Supreme Court mandate? Both political parties — but Democrats, particularly — have an interest in ensuring that voters understand state voting requirements. But Congress can help, too, by expanding voter education and poll-worker training under HAVA.

According to the Election Assistance Commission, HAVA’s administrator, only 16 percent of the $1.7 billion spent by the states so far has gone for election administration, including poll-worker training, and only 4 percent has been used for voter education.

A Congressional Research Service survey of local election officials found that the average amount of training for poll workers around the country was 3.5 hours in 2006. In 10 percent of jurisdictions, it was an hour or less.

The states so far have spent only 60 percent of the $2.8 billion appropriated by Congress under HAVA, and Congress has appropriated $600 million less than it authorized. If states are going to make it more difficult for citizens to vote, they — and Congress — need to do more to make sure everyone involved knows the rules.