U.S. House passes voter identification bill: questions about effects on election administration and about privacy

Yesterday the U.S. House passed H.R. 4844, on a 228-196 vote. Here’s a link to the wire story on the House passage of the bill, from the Houston Chronicle. The bill now moves to the U.S. Senate for consideration …

This bill, called the “Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006”, includes a series of amendments to both the NVRA and to HAVA, which will require provision of proof of citizenship to register to vote (with guidelines to be developed by the EAC, in consultation with both the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of State), as well as requiring that voters provide a current and valid photo identification in order to receive a ballot.

Much of the public debate over this bill has revolved around the usual fraud versus accessibility dimension, the same cleavage that framed the debates about NVRA and HAVA (see the reporting in the newspaper story cited above). One concern that I’ve not heard a great deal of public debate about is what impact these provisions will have on election administration, and especially how it will change the nature of precinct poll site voting operations on Election Day.

Whether or not requiring photo identification at the polls will reduce the likelihood of fraud, or disenfranchise voters, it will clearly add a layer of procedural complexity to polling place voting. And when we add additional layers of procedural complexity we run the risk of increasing the odds of inappropriate discretionary decisionmaking by poll workers, of procedural errors, and simply that already long lines will get even longer when otherwise eligible citizens show up to vote, have to produce a photo identification, have that identification checked by a pollworker, and so on.

There are also privacy and ballot secrecy issues that this measure raises that haven’t been thoroughly debated, either. For example, the bill stipulates that for those who vote by mail: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the appropriate State or local election official may not accept any ballot for an election for Federal office provided by an individual who votes by mail unless the individual submits with the ballot a copy of a current and valid photo identification.” So if a voter sends along a copy of her drivers license with the ballot, what happens to that copy and that critical piece of data — her drivers license number? Is her drivers license number used to query public or private databases to verify identity? How is is guaranteed that her complete identity is kept independent from her cast ballot? And how do we guarantee that this information is kept completely confidential, and absolutely not allowed to leave the control of government officials (and thereby fall into the hands of identity thieves, for example)?