American Reason: Poll Tax Repartee

Matt Sowada: In this inaugural attempt to bring our radio debate series to the page for Little Village, I thought we’d start by discussing the notion of photo voter identification requirements. This is an idea that I know you’ve derided in the past, but if we are willing to look past the partisan histrionics that characterize the discussion in the national media, I think that there may be a hidden benefit to a strengthening of the voter ID system. I suggest that a photo ID requirement for voting may result in a higher quality electorate.

A civilization’s fortune will rise or fall based on the competence of those primates that are vested with power, and in a republic, the quality of the electorate is what determines leadership. While we as a nation have correctly concluded that neither genitalia, skin pigmentation nor wealth levels are useful criteria with which to assign franchise, it still makes sense for us to attempt to maximize the number of informed and well thought-out votes. It is important to acknowledge that the act of voting matters, and it seems to me that requiring the acquisition of a photo ID would ensure that each voter is at least aware enough of the election to bother to do that.

Vikram Patel: Indeed, with election season upon us, nothing could be more pertinent than voting rights. However, I don’t believe that requiring a photo ID for voting would improve the quality of the electorate.

The central assumption behind your suggestion is that it is easy for most anyone to get a government-issued photo ID. This may have been the case for the vast majority of people we know, especially because our first ID was attained with the guidance and help of our parents and school system. However, in a 2005 study from UW-Milwaukee, about 20 percent 50 percent of voting age individuals living in each of Milwaukee’s low-income zip codes had a photo ID compared to about 70 percent  to 90 percent in more prosperous neighborhoods. These individuals don’t lack ID because of negligence on their part, but because obtaining an ID can be very time consuming and resource intensive. The connection between possessing a photo ID and forethought in voting is tenuous.

It does seem to me that fighting against same-day registration would come much closer to what you intend without the unconstitutional poll-tax side effects. I, on the other hand, believe that our elections tend to have better results when more people are involved, because that makes it harder for special interest groups to disproportionally influence elections and candidates.

MS: No, the central assumption behind my suggestion is that it is not an inconvenience-free process to obtain a government ID, although I would definitely demand a discussion on ways to make any proposed system for getting a voter ID card constitutionally convenient for a person with genuine interest. Comparing a non-existent system to the Department of Motor Vehicles is unfair since I never suggested that DMV necessarily be the model for a photo voter ID program.

I am more interested in your second point. How is it that an electorate bolstered by legions of voters who may have no other reason to be at the polls than  that they heard Obama was a Muslim would be better able to stave off the influence of special interest groups than an smaller electorate forced to expend some minimum number of calories in order to cast their ballot?

VP: In every electorate there are small but heavily organized groups that center around select issues. In an election with low voter turn out, these groups can organize their members in order to out vote the myriad other disorganized views. This generally ends with the election of representatives who do not hold views in line with the majority of the people in a given area or the passage of propositions that run contrary to the will of the majority.

After the 2004 Kansas Board of Education election, the members of the board introduced into the curriculum the teaching of Intelligent Design. In the following election in 2006, after copious amounts of media coverage inspired citizens of Kansas beyond the small group interested in Intelligent Design to vote for Board of Education, a pro-evolution majority replaced the Intelligent Design majority on the Board thereby reflecting the majority of Kansas’ citizens.

Also, if you are worried about voters who register on election day being uninformed, know that everyone has at least thought about their own relationship to the government and it is highly unlikely that any voter could avoid the coverage of the election, so no voter enters the booth in a state of ignorance.

MS: While I doubt that just consuming “coverage of the election” would result in effective voters, your other point may explain our difference of opinion. You successfully played upon my heartstrings with the example of creationists briefly gaining control in Kansas. That episode was just embarrassing. The thing is that you also mentioned the approaching election season, and I admit that it was through that lens that I was viewing this issue. My suggestion centered around the notion that establishing a system that helps less traditional groups gain influence would actually be greatly beneficial at a national level. At that level we call “small but heavily organized” groups “third parties,” and I think they are the answer to the inescapable stranglehold the two party system has on politics in the U.S. I’ll leave you with the last word.

VP: If our electoral system had viable third parties, it would lead to a more effective and representative government. However, the gains that come from strengthening third parties by requiring photo voter IDs on any level would also strengthen the kind of small interest groups that I alluded to earlier, thereby exacerbating the polarization and dysfunction we already have with two parties. There are other methods we could use to strengthen the power of third parties that would not require the hardship that would accompany the proposed transition.

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Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m., and find an archive of the shows (as well as exclusive web-only content) online at