Jewish World Review July 10, 2006 / 14 Tamuz 5766
John H. Fund
What Mexico can teach the United States
Mexico is likely to weather the controversy over its photo-finish election despite the protestors that losing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador brought into the streets on Saturday to claim the election had been stolen. Mexico's nonpartisan National Election Commission has built up a decade of credibility in running clean elections and international observers have certified the count as fair. Indeed, in its successful efforts to overcome its old reputation for corrupt vote-counting Mexico has a lot to teach the United States.
Mexico has developed an elaborate system of safeguards to prevent voter fraud. Absentee ballots, which are cast outside the view of election officials and represent the easiest way to commit fraud, are much harder to apply for than in the U.S. Voters must present a valid voter ID card with a photo and imbedded security codes. After they cast a ballot voters just like those famously pictured in Iraq last year also have a finger or thumb dipped in indelible purple ink to prevent them from voting again.
In the U.S. opponents of such anti-fraud measures as photo ID laws claim they will disenfranchise many voters and reduce voter turnout. But John Lott, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that in the three presidential elections Mexico has conducted since the National Election Commission reformed the election laws "68% of eligible citizens have voted, compared to only 59% in the three elections prior to the rule changes." People are more likely to vote if they believe their ballot will be fairly counted.
But in the U.S. a growing percentage of people have doubts their votes are recorded properly, whether those doubts stem from concerns about new electronic voting machines or old-style political machines with a reputation for corruption. Residents of cities such as Philadelphia, where there are more registered voters than the number of adults over the age of 18, routinely note that "voting early and often" is a time-honored and all too real tradition.
Photo ID laws are considered one of the most basic and necessary election safeguards by a host of countries including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Britain, India and South Africa. But less than half of U.S. states have any kind of photo ID laws. Opponents continue to claim they are discriminatory. Just last week, a federal judge in Georgia blocked that state's new photo ID law from taking effect.
Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, doesn't see what all the fuss over photo ID is about. In an era when people have to show ID to rent a DVD at Blockbuster or cash a check he told me "requiring ID can help poor people." He noted that Georgia is deploying a mobile bus to issue voter IDs and allowing groups like the NAACP to arrange for it to go to specific sites such as nursing homes.
Last year, the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker proposed a national photo ID requirement. They noted the importance of clean election rolls and the usefulness a photo ID law could provide in ensuring that the person arriving at a polling site is the same one that is named on the registration list. They also proposed that all states use their best efforts to obtain proof of citizenship before registering voters.
During the Senate's May debate on immigration reform, Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell noted that with 12 million illegal immigrants in the country it made sense to have a national law to have voters show a photo ID before they vote and have them indicate if someone is a citizen. He proposed an amendment to the immigration bill that would have included a grant to ensure that states could afford to provide a free ID to anyone who needed one. Requiring someone to show a photo ID would cut down on potential fraud and misrepresentation at the polls, especially in states such as Wisconsin where voters can register to vote and cast a ballot on Election Day with no waiting period. "Last I checked, the constitutional right to rent a movie or buy motor oil in bulk was conspicuously absent. However, the constitution is replete, as is the U.S. Code, with protections of the franchise of all Americans," Sen. McConnell told colleagues.
The floor debate over the McConnell proposal was revealing. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois inexplicably claimed the proposal was a solution without a problem because there was no voter fraud in the country. Coming from a man who represents Chicago, his statement left some colleagues in slack-jawed amazement. Almost as unbelievable were claims by Sen. Ted Kennedy that a photo ID requirement would bring back the equivalent of a poll tax on voters. "How can it be a poll tax, if anyone can get the ID for free?" shot back Mr. McConnell.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in April found that 80% of Americans favored a photo ID requirement, with only 7% opposed. Nonetheless, every Democratic senator lined up in opposition to the McConnell amendment a clear sign that key liberal interest groups must feel threatened by the idea of ballot security. Mr. McConnell's amendment survived an attempt to strip it from the immigration bill by a vote of only 49 to 48. Its prospects for becoming law this year are dim.
But it's important that the battle continue. After two bitterly fought and close presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, Americans need to improve both sloppy election laws that may needlessly hinder people from voting and also ensure the results are accepted by all but the most die-hard partisans. That means more oversight and stricter standards for the new electronic voting machines that more and more Americans are using. It should include photo ID laws that are uniform across state lines. It should mean states rethinking rules that in states such as California and Washington state routinely have more than a third of voters casting absentee ballots thus changing the very meaning of an Election Day in which everyone votes at the same time with the same information.
Make no mistake. Close elections are becoming more common everywhere. In addition to Mexico, this spring Italy had a nail biter election that was decided by less than 22,000 votes nationwide. The Czech Republic is still struggling to break a deadlock from an election last month that left both sides with exactly 100 seats each in parliament. Last year, Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats took two months to acknowledge that Angela Merkel had narrowly won and had the right to become the country's first female Chancellor.
Michael Barone, the co-author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, spent a week in Mexico reporting on its election and the safeguards it has taken to ensure an accurate vote. "I have more confidence in Mexico's election procedures than I do in those in much of the United States," he concluded.
Americans should be ashamed that in a much richer country that has a much longer democratic tradition, too many states still have slipshod and defective security protections. In the 1960s, Americans fought a civil rights battle to ensure the right of everyone to vote. But every American also has an equal civil right not to have their ballot canceled out by someone who shouldn't be voting, is voting twice or in some case has long since died.
Mexico is ahead of the U.S. in ensuring its elections are both free and accurate. We should ask ourselves if we can afford to let that stunning contrast continue. Our next painfully close presidential election may be only a little over two years away. The time to act is now.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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©2001, John H. Fund