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Weighing type I and type II errors

The American democratic experiment permeated our nation’s culture much earlier than did the photograph. The first U.S. presidential election predated the first camera by about three decades, and it has only been in the very recent past that photo identification as a means of preventing voter fraud has even been a option. Relying on a slightly souped-up version of the honor system has worked well for most states for centuries; if tightening voting laws by requiring photo ID discourages turnout, it should only be done when voter fraud has been shown to be a problem. This year, 14 states considered legislation that would newly implement some kind of photo ID requirements for voting. In this process Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas decided to newly require strict photo ID from prospective voters (joining Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin and Georgia). If Gov. Beverley Purdue hadn’t vetoed the N.C. Voter ID Bill this past summer, North Carolina might have joined these states, and if her veto gets overturned during this legislative session, it may still happen. A North Carolina voter ID law would be bad for Duke students and an assault on the democratic process.

Any statistics majors should be familiar with type I and type II errors—put alternately false positives and false negatives, or, in the context of voting, people who cast ballots that they should not have been cast, and people who want to be able to vote but cannot. Voter fraud is a type I error, and according to the North Carolina Board of Elections, only 0.0055 percent of ballots cast in 2008 were believed to be fraudulent. Some assume that the State Board of Elections must not be catching all cases, but their system is fairly complex and rigorous—voter registrations and ballots cast are checked against the year’s death certificates, against ballots cast in other counties and against registrations in other states—with or without an ID, committing voter fraud (and not getting caught) in North Carolina would not be a simple matter.

The type II errors caused by the implementation of voter ID laws, though, are enormous. A 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that about 11 percent of voting-age citizens lacked photo identification of any type. The N.C. bill has provisions to provide IDs to eligible voters at Board of Elections offices, but already marginalized segments of the voting population are less likely to learn about the voter ID law and less likely to have the means to access the Board of Elections to receive photo ID—nor should they have to. Every American has a right, not a privilege, to vote. Creating additional hurdles to cast ballots should only be done when confronted with serious evidence that voter fraud is a problem.

Passing voter ID bills makes the voting populace less representative of the population as a whole, which is profoundly undemocratic. Black adults are roughly three times more likely to lack government-issued photo identification than white adults, and almost one out of every three women lack any type of proof of citizenship with their current legal name (as opposed to their maiden name). The homeless and the elderly are also less likely to have ID that shows both their address and their picture, requirements under the N.C. Voter ID Bill. Voter ID laws distort democracy by creating hurdles that burden some segments of the population much more than they do other segments of the population. Even though it’s a good thing that the proposed N.C. voter ID law would provide free IDs to low-income Americans, if we believe that this move to give more Americans photo IDs to be a substantially important goal, we should offer photo identifications free of charge without tying them to voting eligibility. If a law stops one U.S. citizen from voting, we should deeply consider whether or not that law improves the democratic process.

Duke students particularly stand to lose out. By federal election law, college students residing on campus full-time are eligible to vote where their college is located. From the perspective of a Duke student, voting in Durham makes perfect sense—we pay sales taxes, use Durham roads and public transportation, work jobs in Durham and hopefully avoid doing things that would involve us getting tried in Durham courts. Because the proposed N.C. voter ID law would require the address listed on identification to match the address of registration, basically each and every Duke student would have to go to the Board of Elections to get a new photo ID issued. Duke University shamefully didn’t provide Duke students transportation to early voting in 2010 (although Duke Democrats did). It would be even more obviously the moral imperative of Duke University to provide transportation to the thousands of Duke-affiliated registered voters in Durham County to the Board of Elections to get photo ID if this legislation was passed. This process would be a hassle for the administration and a hassle for the students.

The riots in London this summer should have shown us the profound dangers associated with not all members of a society feeling invested in that society’s outcomes. Already, many Americans feel like the government fundamentally doesn’t represent them, and isn’t interested in what they have to say. I still have faith that these Americans are mistaken—that our democracy is structured to represent the interests of all citizens. If the N.C. Voter ID Bill passes, though, I won’t blame those citizens who don’t have photo ID for wondering who in government cares about them.

Elena Botella is a Trinity junior and the co-president of Duke Democrats. Her column runs every other Tuesday.


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