Voter ID laws carry hefty price tag for cash-strapped states

Cross-posted from a Facing South article by Chris Kromm.

In 2010, Republicans campaigned on the issues of jobs, taxes and the economy -- and with  states still reeling from scarce jobs and tight budgets, GOP leaders have pledged to keep that focus.

In North Carolina, incoming House Speaker Rep. Thom Tillis (R) opened the 2011 session this week by putting wrist-bands on the desks of every house member that said "Think Jobs" -- the same ones he gave to GOP candidates last fall, with instructions to snap them if they ever wandered off-message.

But as state legislatures have opened for business over the last week, GOP lawmakers have begun not by pushing bills focused on jobs, but for measures that would require citizens to show photo identification while voting -- laws which, among other controversial features, will end up costing states tens of millions of dollars to implement.

GOP leaders have introduced voter ID bills or plan to in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin. In Texas -- which faces a budget shortfall of over $10 billion -- Gov. Rick Perry (R) went so far as to declare voter ID a legislative "emergency" to fast-track the bill.

All the bills have sparked controversy. For one, there's scant evidence that voter impersonation at the polls -- the one kind of fraud that ID laws address -- is a big problem. The bills are also viewed by Democrats and voting rights advocates as deeply partisan, given studies that show the elderly, African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and other constituencies are most likely to not have the needed ID cards.

But at a time when states face staggering budget shortfalls, the biggest problem facing voter ID bills may be that states simply can't afford them.

An effective, full-scale voter ID program can easily end up costing state taxpayers $20 million or more -- the three-year price tag officials estimated in 2010 for a program in Missouri. For most states, such a costly program would be a suspect luxury in ordinary times; it's nearly impossible to justify in in today's economic crisis.

Among the costs that cash-strapped states face from voter ID laws:

* VOTER EDUCATION: State officials agree that voter ID laws require major publicity and education efforts to avoid voter confusion and make sure legitimate voters aren't turned away at the polls. In 2010, Missouri estimated it would cost $16.9 million [pdf] for TV, radio and newspaper announcements and other outreach to the state's 4 million voters.

* WHO PAYS FOR I.D.? Studies show that up to 11% of citizens don't have a photo ID. Forcing voters to buy cards has made states the target of lawsuits claiming such costs amount to a modern-day poll tax. To solve the problem, many states now issue free ID cards, but it's expensive: In 2009, Wisconsin (3.5 million voters) projected a total $2.4 million cost [pdf]; Missouri estimated $3.4 million [pdf].

* IMPLEMENTING VOTER ID: Voter ID laws generate dozens of new costs for state and local officials: accommodating longer lines at DMV offices, updating forms and websites, hiring and training staff to handle provisional ballots for those who don't have ID on Election Day. In 2009, Maryland estimated it would cost one county over $95,000 a year [pdf] just to hire and train precinct judges to examine IDs of voters. With local governments already cutting programs and staff to the bone, states will likely need to appropriate millions of dollars each year to help cover these new expenses.

While high, these figures may not even fully capture the full costs of a voter ID program. For years, state leaders have been hiding or low-balling the budget impacts of voter ID measures, presumably to help get them passed amidst bitter partisan controversy.

A Facing South analysis of the fiscal notes, or cost estimates lawmakers are required to submit with proposed bills, in five states* finds that lawmakers routinely failed to budget for essential elements of carrying out a voter ID law, including informing voters, administrative costs, hiring and training staff and other necessary expenses.

In other cases, state budget estimates have noted the expenses, but blithely said they would be "absorbed" by existing state and local agencies. When Georgia signed its amended ID bill into law in 2006, lawmakers infamously didn't even include a fiscal note [pdf] with the bill, even though the state admitted counties would need at least $1 million for equipment alone. In 2009, Texas officials similarly tried to side-step the costs, making the astonishing claim that their program would have "no significant fiscal implication to the State."

Such budgetary sleights-of-hand may have worked in the past, but they're unlikely to be accepted by officials today as they are asked to slash budgets and lay off core staff at every level of government.

In short, the more honest state officials are about what's needed to implement a voter ID program -- and the less they try to push those costs off onto already-struggling agencies -- the higher the price tag.

Given the much bigger problems facing states today, is the GOP's voter ID crusade really something they can afford?

* Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin


My Letter to the Editor in Sunday's Herald-Sun

Require ID

After promising to focus on budget cuts and smaller government, it is disconcerting to see that one of the first items on the Legislative agenda is a Voter ID law.

Rather than spending up to 20 million dollars on a non-existing problem and creating another government bureaucracy, it would be more efficient and cheaper to use our shrinking funds to make voting technology tamper-proof and train elections officials better.

Individual voter fraud, which this Voter ID law is supposed to prevent, is extremely rare and does not pose a credible threat to the integrity of our elections.

Charges of widespread voter fraud have not been substantiated in recent years. For example, an intensive effort on the part of the federal government to uncover and prosecute voter fraud in Wisconsin in 2004 resulted in just five convictions for illegal voting in an election with over 3 million ballots cast.

In addition, penalties for voter fraud carry hefty fines, lengthy prison sentences, and, in the case of fraudulent voting by non-citizens, the revocation of legal status and deportation.

Why would anyone risk so much for virtually nothing? It makes no sense.

Using allegations of voter fraud to impose more and more restrictive identification requirements on voting is nothing more than a political ploy intended to depress the turnout of voters of color, disabled and low-income voters, and students.

I could be wrong, of course, and this is actually a well-intentioned but misguided initiative to create more government jobs to help the unemployed.



Resistance is Fertile

Outstanding letter!

and thank you so much for writing it on behalf of all the people who would be disenfranchised and lack a political voice... It was well-said indeed.

Katy Munger,
Progress North Carolina Action

Lead, follow or get out of the way....

I second what

what Katy said. Nicely done!

Nicely done, Heide

Is this the first of the letter-writing campaign discussed at the PDNC Caucus Meeting on Saturday? Even if not, it is well done and well timed.

I do want to remind readers that missed earlier post on this (and there is a long story from Robertson of the AP today in the N&O), the GOP seems to have backed off from previous insistence on a Picture ID, and they are now saying a voter registration card will be acceptable as an ID for voting.

Martha Brock

Thanks, Martha

I sent this letter in before your post and the meeting on Saturday.

Even if the GOP is backing off from a photo ID, this still will require a well-funded campaign to:
1. inform voters about the new requirement well in advance of any elections
2. hire more BOE election staff to respond to a wave of voter inquiries
3. hire subcontractors to print and mail voter registration cards promptly -- I know I got one many years ago, but I know I am not alone when I say that I have no earthly clue where it might be

My question is this: if they trust the voter registration list of the SBOE enough to say okay to voter registration cards which derive from that list, why not continue to trust the precinct judge to read correctly from the list of registered voters?

I am a precinct chair and use my registered voter lists on a regular basis to identify new-comers, non-voters, and sudden changes in voting patterns. During the election, every precinct has observers from both parties present with access to those same voter lists. If anyone seems not to conform to your list, that voter can be challenged right then and there. Why put 99.9% of voters through extra hassle to ferret out the lone anomalie?

Most of the issues that arise during voting are easily rectified anyway. The most common is: people moved and their information has not been updated. In that case, they can either go to their old precinct if it is within the same county or fill out a provisional ballot.

I always urge voters who have moved and are not sure where they are registered to make use of Early Voting where such issues can easily be dealt with on the spot without the need of a provisional ballot.

Voter fraud is not a problem, and most wrinkles can be ironed out at the precinct level. It makes absolutely no sense at all putting cannon-sized measures in place to swat a fly on our forehead.

Resistance is Fertile

To Take Action: Contact Your Reps & Perdue

From Democracy North Carolina:

The NC General Assembly began this week and you’d think the new Republican leaders would get right to work fixing our state’s budget and creating jobs.
Well, you’d be wrong.

Instead, they’re hard at work on a proposal to add a new barrier to voting.

Do you have a parent in a rest home or a kid in college? A friend who doesn’t drive? A sister who changed her name when she married? They will find voting more difficult under a bill that would require them to show a photo ID with a current address each time they vote.

A photo ID law will waste millions of tax dollars to “fix” a problem that barely exists. Republican leaders say the law is needed to stop voter fraud. But you are more likely to be struck by lightning in NC than have somebody steal your vote.

This proposal will especially hurt low-income citizens, people with disabilities, students, people of color and the elderly. It’s a shameful power grab.

Email your legislators today to oppose this effort and urge Governor Perdue to use her veto power to protect voters' rights in North Carolina.

If you think a photo ID is good for voters, please read this short fact sheet.

You can also call Gov. Bev Perdue at 1-800-662-7952. Tell her to VETO any voter photo ID bill.

Tell others! Call us at 888-OUR-VOTE and find out what else you can do to help.

If you or someone you know would be affected by a photo ID law, share the story with Democracy North Carolina by emailing us at We’re gathering personal stories that will be important to share with lawmakers.


Katy Munger,
Progress North Carolina Action

Lead, follow or get out of the way....