This week voters in my home state of Arkansas exercised their franchise in the primary election. Beginning in 2014, voters are obliged to present a state-issued photo identification card to poll workers.
This extra step raised the ire of people at all ends of the social and political spectrum. People of a more libertarian mindset see this as one more example of Big Brother closing his steely fist around the necks of the public. Conservatives (more generally) view this as a necessary precaution against voter fraud vis-à-vis illegal aliens and other ineligible parties casting a ballot. People on the leftmost extremities see this as yet another way to systematically exclude certain segments of the population from their Constitutional right to vote.
They’re all right and all very wrong.
While I freely concede that governmental knowledge of its citizens is expanding, I’m unconvinced this is necessarily a bad thing. Many will argue that the way the government exerts control is to increasingly invade your privacy. From my experience the vast majority of people taking this idea to extremes are the same ones worried that a latter-day Hitler is coming to take their guns.
As someone who has worked with many different government agencies, I can say with authority that your government (however construed) is already using nearly unimaginable technology to mine data and build intricate profiles of people and their associations. Most people are extremely predictable. You take the same route to work or the grocery store. You go to bed around the same time each night. You buy the same brands of clothes and food. In short, you find things that are agreeable and your repeat them often as necessary… no big puzzle.
On the matter of “preventing voter fraud” I have two words: Horse hockey. This is code-speak for preventing too many immigrants and minorities from voting.
Except in small pockets — and usually at the hands of corrupt election officials, not voters — election fraud is mercifully rare. Accordingly, this is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to suppress minority turnout. If you can’t do anything about the black president, you hamstring those who support him.
All of this fuels suspicions of people on the other end of things — who are also against ID laws. Their arguments typically center on the inconvenience or cost associated with getting a state ID card. For better or worse, being an adult and participating in society means you have to make choices and do stuff you don’t want to do.
In Arkansas, an ID card costs five bucks. You have to show some kind of proof that you are who you say and that you’re here legally. It’s a hassle. So are taxes, speed limits and pistachios that won’t crack. Life is hard.
For those who balk at ID laws from the left, the way to combat them is to get the darn card; vote those bigoted jerks out of office; and replace them with people who’ll repeal the laws. Fight the system with the system. Nothing is more gratifying.
All of this gets to a much more important point wholly ignored by all the naysayers — the government and its agents have a compelling interest in being able to positively identify any person with whom they legitimately have business. When a cop legally stops someone, they have both a safety interest and a legal interest in being able to immediately ascertain the identity of the individual. Courts have said so many times. So too with voting. Election officials have a compelling interest to ensure each person votes only once; that they are who they claim to be; and that they have a legal right to do so.
To this point, I am not only in favor of voter ID laws, I’m in favor of laws requiring that any person in public must have a state issued ID card on their person at all times. It’s part of being a good citizen. It’s responsible. All the other restrictions on government intrusion still apply — as they should.
All that said, I guess I’ll go try to find some jackboots with a hippie fringe on them.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org