Why Can People Without ID's, and Ted Stevens, Vote?

Dear Stumped:

Why isn't ID required when registering to vote? Our country was built on the honor system, which is sad because it looks like there aren't many honorable people left! One needs ID for pretty much everything else, so why not? This is important.

Louise Lenz

Dear Louise:

You are preaching to the choir. I'd like the United States to adopt a national photo ID card -- one that could be used to verify voting eligibility, among other things. In many other countries, the adoption of foolproof voting cards has been not only a means of ensuring cleaner elections, but also of empowering all voters. It is an oddly American belief to maintain that the current ambiguous maybe-you-can-vote-maybe-you-can't-so-come-find-out system, run by local politicos, is the more liberal alternative. The absence of a credible citizenship card creates all sorts of problems when we then turn to social security cards and driver's licenses to fill needs they were never designed to fill.

Registration requirements vary tremendously by state, but the 2002 "Help America Vote Act" sensibly requires first-time voters in federal elections to show identification when voting if they didn't have to do so when registering (but even then, the law bends over backwards in allowing almost any plausible form of ID).

Asking people to verify their identity when voting is so politically charged because of our history of pernicious efforts by local authorities, often racist authorities, to suppress the vote. But again, liberals would be wise to view universal, foolproof ID cards as more of an opportunity than a threat -- because the more discretion you take away from election officials administering ambiguous requirements, the more you empower historically marginalized voters. The trick, of course, is making such national cards easily obtainable. If countries like Mexico have mastered this, surely the U.S. can.

Dispassionate experts, such as the 2005 Carter-Baker Commission, usually favor steps to require voters to verify their identity. And it was heartening that, in contrast to the tiresome partisanship usually surrounding this issue, it was the Supreme Court's leading liberal jurist, John Paul Stevens, who authored the court's April opinion upholding Indiana's law requiring all voters to show a photo ID at the time of casting their ballots.

Dear Stumped:

Why is it that a convicted felon cannot vote, but Sen. Ted Stevens, as a convicted felon, can run for office and serve as a senator?

Valerie Wallin

Dear Valerie:

The Constitution establishes the eligibility requirements for Senate candidates: You must be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for nine years and a resident of the state you will represent. Hence, Ted Stevens meets the criteria (it's not even close on the age one).

Presumably the wise voters of Alaska will reach the conclusion that they don't want someone as corrupt as Ted "Can I borrow that chair for seven years?" Stevens representing them. If they do re-elect him, however, the Senate can vote by a two-thirds majority to expel him. The senators would probably wait until his appeal decision, but if he lost that, he'd be a goner for sure. You betcha, as they say in Alaska.

Meanwhile, Alaska's Department of Law has answered the existentialist question of whether the senator can vote for himself. Yes, he can, at least for now. Alaska state law, to your point, bars convicted felons (convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude") from voting, but the state's lawyers have determined that a person is not a "convicted felon" until the time of sentencing, which in this case is scheduled for February.

Alaska's law disenfranchising felons is fairly liberal, in that it allows them to re-register to vote as soon as they have served their sentence. Virginia, by contrast, is one of the last remaining states to impose a lifetime ban on voting by most convicted felons.

Dear Stumped:

What happens to the money a candidate has after the election? Does it revert to the party he or she represents?

JJ in PA

Dear JJ,

In the bad old days, you may recall, federal lawmakers often were able to use their surplus campaign war chests upon retirement for personal use. No longer -- at least not legally.

Candidates for federal office, including the presidency, retain control after an election over unspent private contributions they have received. The decent thing to do, it seems to me, would be to return the unused funds to contributors. But the law allows candidates to keep the money for their next race or give it to charity, to the party or to other candidates running for federal office (though they have to observe same limits other donors do). They can also convert their untapped war chests into political action campaigns.

This can give a losing candidate a source of leverage and clout for years to come after an election, but hoarding too much has its downsides too. Many Democrats are still furious at John Kerry for having $15 million left over after the 2004 vote. At the rate Barack Obama has been raising money, he may end up with enough of a surplus to bail out a Wall Street bank, but don't expect any bitterness this time around, given how far he has outspent John McCain.

By Andres Martinez |  November 1, 2008; 12:00 AM ET
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If Ted Stevens is not officially a convicted felon until he's sentenced, can Bush pardon him?

Posted by: Lalalu | November 1, 2008 3:21 PM

It is obvious Stevens can run because he can't hide anymore!!

Posted by: cgillard | November 1, 2008 12:56 PM

I am all for a national ID card. I am American living in a country requiring one, and the country does require you to register with the authorities when you move in order to update your ID. No one, such as the police, has ever asked me for my ID randomly, and there are no random checks of IDs. In the U.S.A., there is a need for a government picture ID to do anything official (except, it seems, vote) or travel on a train or airplane, so drivers' licenses or state non-driver IDs have become required. I no longer have a U.S. driver's license, so I have to bring my passport with me at all times when I am in the U.S. just when doing things like taking the train or visiting a government building. And, I have had police in the U.S. randomly ask me for ID. So, the requirement for a national ID is already, effectively, in effect. Why not just admit this, regularize the process, and use such an ID for voting? Note, I think the national ID should be free of charge; no one should be excluded for financial reasons.

It will also help with immigration issues. Citizens and legal permanent residents will have ID cards, legal visitors will have their passports with appropriate stamp or visa, and any adult not in these categories should have to explain what they are doing in the U.S.A. to the immigration authorities.

Posted by: AnonymousBE | November 1, 2008 10:39 AM

I grew up in a country where everyone has an ID issued by the government. It was not based on an address. No changes required if you move from location to another.

The faux voter fraud shtick is based on obscuring and deflecting attention from electoral fraud and voter supperession techniques used by America's right wingers.

Electoral fraud is an American tradition being well manipulated by the right wingers to keep the masses from having any real say in how this country is run. The last thing they will brook is power to the average citizen. Power belongs to and must remain in the hands of the wealthy so far as they are concerned.

Posted by: palnicki | November 1, 2008 7:29 AM

All you need to "register" for voting is a drivers license or government photo ID. When you vote, all they ask for is a drivers license or government photo ID. Why do we go through the charade of "registering" to vote?


Posted by: DEFJAX | November 1, 2008 7:08 AM

A national ID card is unconstitutional. What is to stop the authorities from stopping Americans just to check their papers? This is common in many countries and would be a total violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Authorities would also be able to stop people from going into neighborhoods where they don't "belong" based on the addresses on their ID cards. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such restrictions are unconstitutional.
Citizens would be forced to update the information on their ID cards at considerable expense of time and money. Nothing in the Constitution places such a burden on the people.
The voter fraud issue is very minor and mostly a Republican myth. Demanding a national ID card to counter alleged voter fraud is like trying to kill flies with a bazooka.
IDs are required by many businesses but these businesses do not have the power of the government behind them. One is always free to patronize another business, not so with the government.

Posted by: acrami | November 1, 2008 3:41 AM

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