Florida: Flashpoint in the Debate about Voter Fraud

by Dean Searcy // Published May 3, 2011

Florida has joined Texas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Indiana among states either passing or seriously considering requiring a government-issued photo ID to be presented whenever any individual votes. Florida's House Bill 1355 and Senate Bill 2086 would: require all voters to present a government issued ID at the polls, mandate the use of provisional ballots if an eligible voter moves to another county, tighten rules on voter registration groups, and shortening the validity of voter signatures on citizen initiatives.

Keeping in mind Florida's persistent issues with elections, the state's desire to improve its elections is admirable. Consider:

  1. The 2000 presidential election came down to the winner of an incredibly close contest in Florida, ultimately officially decided by 537 votes. Every part of the voting process came under intense scrutiny - and generally failed that scrutiny, including confused recount procedures, antiquated "hanging chad " technology and controversies over management of voter rolls, access to voting, ballot designs like the "butterfly ballot" and more.
  2. In 2002, following a $30 million retrofit of Florida voting technology, many of the problems present in the 2000 election continued, while new issues reared their ugly heads. For example, voting machines malfunctioned, polling places were closed or under-staffed, and long polling lines forced many precincts to turn voters away at closing time (despite longer hours to accommodate the surge in turnout).
  3. In 2004, several counties in Florida discovered a computer glitch which had miscounted thousands of absentee ballots by subtracting all votes over 33,000 (a programmed number) from the vote total, resurrecting concerns about the accuracy of electronic voting machines. In addition to equipment flaws, there were widespread allegations of voter fraud including: registration forms containing addresses which didn't exist, forged signatures, and unintentional re-registrations under different partisanship.
  4. In 2006, a US House race hinged on an abnormally high "undervote" in the losing candidate's home base of support in Sarasota, raising questions about ballot design or machine malfunction.
  5. In 2008, polling places in several Florida precincts were overwhelmed by high voter turnout. Combined with confusion about new ID laws (which screened all voters submitting a mis-matched driver's license or social security number), voters spent up to three hours waiting in line to simply exercise their voice.

It's not surprising that Florida voters are ready to combat election fraud and irregularities, but measures need to be accurately targeted and sufficiently controlled to avoid causing new problems and needless disenfranchisement.

Consider voter identification requirements. On the one hand, Viewpoint Florida reports that likely voters in Florida overwhelmingly support requiring presentation of a government issued ID to vote, including 82% of Democrats, 91% of Republicans, and 84% of Independents .

But these poll results aren't necessarily grounded in good information. The press has spotlighted stories of people registering as Disney characters and college students attempting to vote even though already registered in their home district.

But there is no evidence that such practices lead to a significant number of illegal votes being cast - nor evidence that photo ID requirements even address a range of fraudulent voting practices like double voting, dead voters, fake addresses and vote-buying. A Brennan Center study concludes that voter fraud based on impersonation of another person is extremely rare - and already is a federal crime. Even if daring to try it, impersonation seemingly would be easier as an absentee voter, who won't be affected by photo ID requirements.

Balanced against this tenuous connection to a problem is the fact that photo ID requirement might keep thousands of eligible Florida voters from the polls because they don't have a valid government-issued ID and would have trouble getting one. The ACLU of Florida's Danielle Prendergrast argues that "students, racial minorities, and veterans will be the victims of this unneeded tinkering."

Despite not addressing reoccurring election issues such as glitches in voting software, poorly trained poll workers, and long polling lines, an ID requirement in Florida would also have little apparent impact on reducing fraud and could be quite expensive (the plan in Texas is estimated to cost over $2 million). In a state where the total debt is $31 billion and climbing, an ineffective, expensive bill is the last thing Florida needs. When one considers the eminent disenfranchisement that would occur following the passage of this bill, House Bill 1355 and Senate Bill 2086 seem more and more like prescribing an expensive medicine for an illness that doesn't solve the problem, but may just lead to further complications.

Far better would be to step back from an uncalculated "quick fix" and take a measured, nonpartisan approach to how best to uphold the right to vote in Florida. If Florida is willing to commit so much money to voter ID, it should consider how best to meet both goals for voting: protecting the integrity of the vote while ensuring access to voting. We don't have a right to vote in the Constitution, but we should start to act as if we did. Florida voters are too important to do anything less.