Features

net.wars: A different kind of poll tax

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 October 2006


Elections have always had two parts: the election itself, and the dickering beforehand (and occasionally afterwards) over who gets to vote. "I need to see some ID..."

Wendy M Grossman

The latest move in that direction: at the end of September the House of Representatives passed the Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006 (H.R. 4844), which from 2010 will prohibit election officials from giving anyone a ballot who can't present a government-issued photo ID whose issuing requirements included proof of US citizenship. (This lets out driver's licences, which everyone there has, though I guess it would allow passports, which relatively few have.)

These days, there is a third element: specifying the technology that will tabulate the votes. Democracy depends on the voters' being able to believe that what determines the election is the voters' choices rather than the latter two.

The last of these has been written about a great deal in technology circles over the last decade. Few security experts are satisfied with the idea that we should trust computers to do "black box voting" where they count up and just let us know the results. Even fewer security experts are happy with the idea that so many politicians around the world want to embrace: Internet (and mobile phone) voting.

The run-up to this year's mid-term US elections has seen many reports of glitches.

My favorite recent report comes from a test in Maryland, where it turned out that the machines under test did not communicate with each other properly when the touch screens were in use. If they don't communicate correctly, voters might be able to vote more than once. Attaching mice to the machines solves the problem ? but the incident is exactly the kind of wacky glitch that's familiar from everyday computing life and that can take absurd amounts of time to resolve. Why does anyone think that this is a sensible way to vote? (Internet voting has all the same risks of machine glitches, and then a whole lot more.)

The 2000 US Presidential election isn?t as famous for the removal from the electoral rolls in Florida of few hundred thousand voters as it is for hanging chad ? but read or watch on the subject. Of course, wrangling over who gets to vote didn't start then.

Gerrymandering districts, fighting over giving the right to vote to women, slaves, felons, expatriates. . .

The latest twist in this fine, old activity is the push in the US towards requiring Voter ID. Besides the federal bill mentioned above, a couple of dozen states have passed ID requirements since 2000, though state courts in Missouri, Kentucky, Arizona, and California are already striking them down. The target here seems to be that bogeyman of modern American life, illegal immigrants.

Voter ID isn't as obviously a poll tax. After all, this is just about authenticating voters, right? Every voter a legal voter. But although these bills generally include a requirement to supply a voter ID free of charge to people too poor to pay for one, the supporting documentation isn't free: try getting a free copy of your birth certificate, for example. The combination of the costs involved in that aspect, plus the effort involved in getting the ID are a burden that falls disproportionately on the usual already disadvantaged groups (the same ones stopped from voting in the past by road blocks, insufficient provision of voting machines in some precincts, and indiscriminate cleaning of the electoral rolls). Effectively, voter ID creates an additional barrier between the voter and the act of voting. It may not be the letter of a poll tax, but it is the spirit of one.

This is in fact the sort of point that opponents are making.

There are plenty of other logistical problems, of course, such as: what about absentee voters? I registered in Ithaca, New York, in 1972. A few months before federal primaries, the Board of Elections there mails me a registration form; returning it gets me absentee ballots for the Democratic primaries and the elections themselves. I've never known whether my vote is truly anonymous; nor whether it's actually counted.

I take those things on trust, just as, I suppose, the Board of Elections trusts that the person sending back these papers is not some stray British person who's does my signature really well. To insert voter ID into that process would presumably require turning expatriate voters over to, say, the US Embassies, who are familiar with authentication and checking identity documents.

Given that most countries have few such outposts, the barriers to absentee voting would be substantially raised for many expatriates. Granted, we're a small portion of the problem. But there's a direct clash between the trend to embrace remote voting - the entire state of Oregon votes by mail ? and the desire to authenticate everyone.

We can fix most of the voting technology problems by requiring voter-verifiable, auditable, paper trails, as Rebecca Mercuri [above, right] began pushing for all those years ago (and most computer scientists now agree with), and there seem to be substantial moves in that direction as state electors test the electronic equipment and scientists find more and more serious potential problems.

Twenty-seven states now have laws requiring paper trails. But how we control who votes is the much more difficult and less talked-about frontier.


Who do you think you are? a Voter? - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).