A free national voter ID card for citizens?

(Sala de Prensa UNAM photo via AP)

An op-ed in The Atlantic by Russell Berman this week highlights the desperation that congressional Democrats are dealing with as they struggle to pass some sort of “voter rights” bill while they still control a tenuous majority. Most of them realize that such a non-revenue bill will never go through via reconciliation without the Senate parliamentarian shooting it down and they won’t attract the Republican votes they need without putting something on the table. The “something” in question that’s currently under consideration is reportedly an offer that has most of the liberals squirming in their seats. Their leadership is reportedly considering making voter ID a requirement in all fifty states. Berman seems to have made peace with the idea and offers a suggestion to implement it, but it’s one that he freely admits “nobody likes.” He’s suggesting that the federal government issue a free voter identification card to every eligible citizen in the country.

Democrats in Congress are considering a policy that was long unthinkable: a federal requirement that every American show identification before casting a ballot. But as the party tries to pass voting-rights legislation before the next election, it is ignoring a companion proposal that could ensure that a voter-ID law leaves no one behind—an idea that is as obvious as it is historically controversial. What if the government simply gave an ID card to every voting-age citizen in the country?

Voter-ID requirements are the norm in many countries, as Republicans are fond of pointing out. But so are national ID cards. In places such as France and Germany, citizens pick up their identity card when they turn 16 and present it once they’re eligible to vote. Out of nearly 200 countries across the world, at least 170 have some form of national ID or are implementing one, according to the political scientist Magdalena Krajewska.

Berman quotes one voter ID activist who supports the plan but says that there are only three problems with it. “Republicans hate it, Libertarians hate it, and Democrats hate it.”

She’s correct. And let’s face it… there’s a lot to hate. On the surface, the idea of free voter ID cards for all eligible citizens is tempting. An ID that’s acceptable when you show up to vote needs to be free, otherwise, you risk having the measure struck down by the courts as a type of de facto poll tax.

But when you add the word “federal” in front of it, all sorts of problems crop up. Not least of these is the concept of the federal government having a massive database of nearly every adult in the country, complete with all sorts of personal information. That should be a dreamy deal for Democrats, who have long pined for a national database of gun owners. But even the liberals will be up in arms when they realize that illegal aliens wouldn’t be eligible for such a card. Also, most Democrats are opposed to the idea of voter ID to begin with. So nobody comes away very happy.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a federal solution available. While the feds shouldn’t issue the cards directly or maintain such a database, they could create a requirement for all states to offer such a card and appropriate the funds to make that possible. (After all, we live in a time where there is unlimited magical money available to be picked off of the tree in the Rose Garden, right?) They could set the minimum standards for what information would have to be included on the cards so they would be at least somewhat uniform.

But even then, I’m still not comfortable with the idea, as I’m sure many conservatives will not be. Having states ensure that every eligible voter is able to obtain a free ID is the right thing to do, and the reality is that almost all of them do already. But the states are supposed to set their own rules for voting provided they pass constitutional muster. This remains a decision for the states to make on their own. And this proposal still doesn’t answer one of the questions I’ve been screaming from the rooftops here for ages. Where are all of these people who are unable to vote if they wish to?

Berman points to a poll conducted by The Atlantic showing that 9 percent of respondents said they lacked a government-issued ID. But almost all of them (except for two percent) said that the lack of an ID was not the reason they didn’t vote in the last election. No matter where you go, anyone who really wants to vote has multiple opportunities to register and access to a free ID card if they bother to check into where they can get one. While I hate to quote Barack Obama when he weighed in on this issue back when he was still a senator, he was pretty much correct when he said that a national voter ID card program is “a solution in search of a problem.” (Though not for the reasons he meant.)