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This is a joint post with Julia Clark

On the surface, it’s hard to see how requiring a photo ID for elections could be problematic. What’s the big deal? Nearly everyone we know has at least one photo ID—a driver’s license, state ID, or passport. Plus, preventing double or illegitimate voting is a favorable goal in any democracy. Who could argue with a law that promises to protect electoral integrity?

Well, lots of people.

A deeper look reveals a more complex picture than the “voter ID laws = more credible elections” equation suggests. Our work on identification in developing countries reveals how important it is for citizens (and non-citizens!) to have robust means of identifying themselves for official transactions—opening bank accounts, getting social security payments, and voting, for example. Without official documentation, people will—without a doubt—be excluded from basic social, economic and political rights and services.

Many developing countries have taken this problem seriously and have begun or completed large-scale identification processes using modern technology. India’s Unique ID project has already provided over 200 million people with unique numbers that they can use to securely prove who they are. Our research suggests that robust identification programs (often biometric-enabled) can indeed serve as a basis for exercising rights, improving services and reducing fraud.

The evidence also shows that voter ID exercises are sometimes the most problematic identification projects, especially when undertaken hastily, constrained by election timing and without sufficient measures for citizen recourse and redress. In Kenya, for example, a new electronic voter registration system has caused confusion and controversy ahead of their next elections in early 2013. As Gallup reports, many people—particularly young Kenyans—still lack the identity documents necessary to cast their ballots. Sound familiar?

Identification is certainly important for elections, but robust ID systems and regulations must be in place long before the polls open. Last-minute schemes are a recipe for failure.

Unfortunately, many US laws were promulgated hastily and with little foresight. Sensibly though, courts have ruled to delay the enforcement of ID laws in some states (PA & SC) until 2013, giving them the opportunity to thoughtfully implement these requirements. Other laws have also been blocked (WI & TX)—yet uncertainty over implementation remains.

These laws will disenfranchise individuals with the legitimate right to vote if implementation is forced for November 2012. The exact number is open to debate (some estimates have been in the millions), but so is the estimated frequency of individual voter fraud that the laws are meant to combat. In fact, most reports suggest that this type of fraud is extremely rare. What’s more, the decentralized US identification system is hardly robust or fraud-free. In reality, it’s as weak as the weakest state ID.

This should be seriously worrying to those who cherish the promise of “one citizen, one vote.” Though proponents of photo ID requirements would tell us otherwise, it is hard to see the last-minute promotion of these laws as anything other than thinly veiled political maneuvering.

But what about states’—and governor’s—commitments to facilitate identification for those who don’t already have photo IDs? This may help some people, but the benefit of getting a photo ID simply may not be worth the cash and opportunity costs for many. Those without identification are often the elderly, young voters and minorities—three groups that tend not to be wealthy. According to the Washington Post, Texas residents without birth certificates could expect to spend $22 just for the supporting documentation needed to get a voter ID. Factor in travel time (4-5 hours for many rural residents) plus wages lost, and the burden rises to approximately $130—the equivalent of over two day’s earnings at minimum wage.

This calculation, of course, does not include the hassle and lost working hours devoted to actually voting.  Some 40 percent of eligible Americans have enough trouble getting to the polls without the added complication of getting an ID first.

Is voter ID inherently a bad thing? Absolutely not. The question Americans must answer is: Which is more important, ensuring that all eligible voters are able to cast their ballots, or making sure that no ineligible people can vote? Is the certainty of excluding some entitled individuals worth the benefits of preventing some low-level fraud? As Judge Richard Niess wrote in his decision to block the Wisconsin photo ID laws, “voter fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression. Indeed, they are two heads on the monster.”

But maybe we can have our cake and eat it too. If Americans at large believe that photo identification should be required to cast a ballot, states should start the process of refining the laws and working to ensure that all eligible voters have appropriate identification—for the next elections.

Perhaps the U.S. (and Kenya) can follow Fiji’s lead—taking two years to register a population less than 1 percent the size of our own. Early bird gets the credible election!