When the police state starts making sense

2012-09-27

German Identity Card, California Driver License

What’s the difference? Left: A national ID card abhorred by most Americans. Right: A driver license from the Land of the Free. | BMI, California DMV

Voter fraud, voter ID laws, early voting eligibility, poll station hours, and absentee ballots have emerged as the latest battleground in politics and in courts nationwide. For a country that practices elections since nearly 250 years, the voting process in the U. S. seems in utter disarray. Heck, is voting really that difficult?

Of course not, one is tempted to say. It only became this way after politicians realized that in this fiercely and evenly divided nation, the fight is no longer over the people’s will. It is no longer about how votes are counted. The fight has come down to whether that single voter who may cast the deciding ballot will even make it to the polls, and on which hour of which day.

Outsiders hardly understand the twisted thinking behind such seemingly administrative questions. Why is it meaningful, for example, if the Sunday before election day is available for early voting and for whom?

Well, there are many black congregations whose elderly members may not make it to the polls for lack of transportation or information. So they will turn out in much higher numbers if their church has a bus ready after the Sunday morning service to bring them all to the polling station.

There are others who say that such early voting overwhelms the stressed election officials who try to make ends meet under ever shrinking budgets. So, early voting should be limited to those who absolutely have no other choice, like military personnel.

Needless to say that elderly African-American voters, with a little nudge from their friendly pastor, will show quite a different voting pattern than your average military guy. So the fight is not about the most fair regulations but about the most opportune ones.

There is no question that the sanctity of the voting process has fallen prey to the unabashed partisanship that knows neither civility nor respect, not even the respect for a citizen’s vote.

But as frustrating as this is, the political fight is only an outflow from a severe technical problem: Nobody has a clue who should be allowed to vote – and that’s not by accident but by design.

Let’s look for a moment at how simple voting is in Germany. About four weeks before the election, the city or county will mail a postcard to every eligible voter, informing them of the time and place of the vote. On election day – always a Sunday – they go to their designated polling station, usually in walking distance to their home. They can present either their notification or their photo ID, are checked against the 100% accurate list of eligible voters in that precinct, and vote.

So why do they have what the United States are so badly missing – a 100% accurate list of eligible voters?

Germany, like most European states, has an authoritative register of all their residents. Maintained at the municipal level, a record is created for every citizen at birth – basically your name, date of birth, where you live.

When you change your address, you have to tell them. When you move to another city, you have to register in the new city, and tell them where you came from. When you die, they will get your death certificate. If you are a resident alien, you have to register anyway. In countries particularly obsessed with orderliness, like Switzerland, the government even keeps tabs on every hotel guest.

And of course, everyone gets a national ID card which reflects the data that is in the government register.

When I first came to the United States, people would ridicule Germany for such practices which they said amounted to a police state. The government, in their view, had no business tracking the whereabouts of the people. And they rejected the practical advantages of a national ID card with a level of disgust as if the government was stealing their very identities by printing them on a plastic card.

These points are not completely off the mark when you consider history. Registers of residents were first mandated in Germany in the mid-1800’s, and the motives of the governing monarchs and bureaucrats at that time were hardly all benevolent.

On the other hand, the modern-day registers have many practical advantages. No deadbeat dads, no debtors disappearing in the middle of the night, no undocumented immigrants – and a precise voter register.

But admittedly, back in the early 1990s, the point could still be made that a different kind of freedom prevailed in America that was incompatible with such government monitoring. You could roam the country freely with a fake name and a wad of cash in hand and go about your business. Even as a foreigner, I could cross the Canadian border and back in to the United States, no questions asked.

Honesty was still a guiding factor in most interactions. When asking people to register to vote, an assumption was made that they were truthful about their eligibility (even if they were using a fake name).

Even then, however, the freedom had limits. You couldn’t open a bank account without a social security number. You couldn’t get a room at a Motel 6 without presenting a driver license.

But then, one could argue it wasn’t essential to life to have bank accounts or stay at a Motel 6. And if you had to, it was easy enough to get a social security number or a driver license. Even as a foreigner on a student visa, I got both in a matter of days after submitting the proper forms, no questions asked.

Fast forward to 2012. We all know what happened to the presumption of honesty and the value of freedom midway between 1990 and today. Life without ID has become next to impossible (Motel 6, it turns out, was a trendsetter). Technically, of course, you are still free to not have an ID, provided you are happy as a hermit in the mountains, living of nothing but your locally grown berries and the occasional bear you slay with your bare hands.

Yet, Americans cling to the idea that a government register of residents is a terrible thing, and national ID cards must be avoided at all cost.

Unfortunately, the price we pay for this attitude is a system that is more intrusive and less efficient than anything they have in Germany. It is an outlived principle that has perverted itself.

For proof of inefficiency, look to the desperate efforts of states to arrive at a clean register of eligible voters. They try to compare lists from various sources, like in this example from Florida:

The state’s original purge list contained more than 2,600 names but was beset by inaccuracies. Last month, a revised list of 198 names of possible non-citizens was produced through use of a Homeland Security Department citizenship database. State officials asked elections supervisors to remove those names from the rolls but most said the process would run past the Election Day.

To start with, no source is complete or authoritative because no comprehensive register exists in the U. S. Yes, new immigrants will have an extensive paper trail and proof of citizenship with Homeland Security, but families who have lived in the United States for generations may have no record whatsoever.

Also, the process of matching names in itself is error-prone. As we know from the infamous “no-fly lists”, innocent people get harassed by erroneous matches, while not a single terrorist is known to have been caught in the system.

So if you have been labeled a “possible non-citizen”, how do you prove that you are in fact eligible to vote or get the prerequisite photo ID? Basically you have to bring “three forms of ID”.

Why three? I assume that there are sound scientific studies that most people can muster the criminal energy to forge one or two documents, but certainly not three. Or at least I hope such studies exist.

To prove your residence, you are required to bring a phone bill, bank statement, school records or the like. So the problem of generating accurate voter rolls now hinges on documents from private companies. It is hardly the task of those companies to vouch for their customers, nor does it establish their residential addresses in any authoritative form.

So what if someone pointed out that an (electronic) utility bill can be forged very easily with a commercial PDF editor? I assume that the government’s response in their “quantity over quality” approach would be to require everyone to bring five bills from five different utilities. Or they might pass a law that requires all utilities to issue tamper-proof bills.

Or what if someone were to suggest that not everyone has a phone company for purposes of proving his residence? Conceivably, the government might pass a law requiring all citizens to have a phone company, and failure to do so would result in an annual penalty or tax.

I’m only half joking here. The contortions that Americans are willing to go through in the facial defense of a principle are amazing.

But the principle has long failed. What’s now called “Enhanced Driver License” or “Verified Driver License”, subject to federal guidelines, is in fact the equivalent of a national ID card. And what’s worse, in their rejection of a register of residents, presumably to defend citizens from government control, people are now disclosing more information to the government than the most control-obsessed states in Europe ever ask for.

At this point, an authoritative government register of residents is the much lesser of two evils. Let them keep track of names, birthdays and addresses, but keep their nose out of everything else. Even if equal access to the polls on election day were the only benefit, it would be worth it.

Sure, one might argue that disclosing to the government your phone bill, your bank statements, or your school records is rather harmless. But none of that stuff should be the government’s business, however casually. And it gets much more serious when people try to escape the hassle of extensive airport screening through the TSA’s expedited screening program. They have to submit to extensive background checks, including a five-year work history and other truly private information.

The government likes to point out that all of those are voluntary programs. So it’s your choice to disclose all that information or not. Just as it is your choice to live the life of a hermit in the mountains or not. Or to drive or not. Or to vote or not.

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