Omdahl: Is voter ID program worth $700K?
During the 2014 election cycle, North Dakota will be spending $700,000 on advertisements to remind voters that they now need an ID to vote and that ID voting is as “easy as pie.”
The first defense for spending this huge sum of money is that it is federal money. If this money had to come from the state treasury, it would never be spent. But we all know that federal money is cheap, so we can spend it without justification.
In reaction to the frustration and guilt rising out of the 1992 election debacle in Florida, the federal government launched the Help America Vote Act to get the state and local elections systems cleaned up. North Dakota didn’t need its election system cleaned up but we have been taking the money anyway.
Another defense for requiring IDs and spending $700,000 is that we need to protect our election system from fraud.
If you believe that the North Dakota election system is fraught with fraud, I have a gunny sack and flashlight for you to go snipe hunting tonight.
Some years ago, I did a survey on election fraud in North Dakota for a nonprofit organization in New York. They wondered how we got by without voter registration.
I solicited information from the election inspectors in our major cities and all 53 states attorneys. None of the inspectors reported fraud but one state’s attorney who believed that felons were voting in his county.
I dismissed his allegation. It was speculative at best. If there were felons voting, he was the one responsible for prosecution. He didn’t really believe it or he would have been acting on that belief.
(Of course, our statutes have been changed so felons now may vote upon completion of their prison time.)
In most states, politicians are carried away by partisanship in shaping election laws. During the recent legislative sessions held in most states, the Republican-led Legislatures passed laws to restrict voting and Democrat-led Legislatures passed laws to liberalize voting.
Both parties are hoping to win or lose elections through manipulation of the election laws. In some states, it may make a significant difference but not in North Dakota.
Let’s look at precinct consolidation for an answer. We have reduced the number of voting precincts in North Dakota from 2,500 to less than 500 over the past 40 years.
At one point, I studied comparable precincts in several counties and found that consolidation was not discouraging people from voting. This tells us something about the North Dakota voter.
The explanation for this persistence can be found in our political culture. Early settlement demanded self-reliance and rugged individualism. It is in our genes.
Our political institutions were shaped to accommodate participation. Any effort to reduce citizen involvement has failed, e.g. legislative efforts to curtail the initiative and referendum, reduction of the number of counties or townships, or elimination of state officials.
Because of our culture, barriers to voting, including the ID requirement, will be overcome by most North Dakotans.
So is it prudent to spend $700,000 in taxpayer money to promote the ID requirement that may be “easy as pie” but not as easy as when a voter without ID could swear out an affidavit and cast a ballot?
We could dismiss the significance of the ID regulations since it may disenfranchise only a handful of voters. However, even in those cases, maybe democracy for a few is still too important to cast aside for more convenient administration.
Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.