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Voter fingerprint ID

This has superficial appeal, but I don’t believe it holds up under close scrutiny.

Fingerprints can now be used to unlock smart phones, car engines, even guns. Why not ballots, too?

A New Mexico legislator has just proposed that his state’s election officials study the feasibility of a biometric voter identification system. The idea is simple enough: Rather than require voters to show a particular type of document that not everyone possesses, the law could require election officials to collect a piece of information – a finger image or an eye scan – from all voters, which would confirm their identity at the polls.

The political appeal of the idea is clear: Republicans would have the ID laws they claim are needed to protect against voter fraud. And Democrats would have a system that doesn’t disproportionately hurt minorities and the poor. Both parties could declare victory in the war over voter ID and move on.

To be sure, it would be an expensive way to prevent a crime that is all but nonexistent: voter impersonation. If that were the only rationale, it would be hard to justify the cost.

But in addition to freeing voters from photo ID requirements, it would bring other benefits. In states where felons are not allowed to vote, for example, biometric images could be cross-checked with prison records to identify anyone who is illegally registered. A biometric ID would also allow election officials to make their notoriously unreliable voter rolls more accurate.

So what could be wrong with that? Several things, actually. Off the top of my head:

1. Not to put too fine a point on it, but fingerprint identification is more problematic than you might think. That’s a long article, which you should read, but the crux of it is in these three paragraphs:

Fingerprint examiners lack objective standards for evaluating whether two prints “match.” There is simply no uniform approach to deciding what counts as a sufficient basis for making an identification. Some fingerprint examiners use a “point-counting” method that entails counting the number of similar ridge characteristics on the prints, but there is no fixed requirement about how many points of similarity are needed. Six points, nine, twelve? Local practices vary, and no established minimum or norm exists. Others reject point-counting for a more holistic approach. Either way, there is no generally agreed-on standard for determining precisely when to declare a match. Although fingerprint experts insist that a qualified expert can infallibly know when two fingerprints match, there is, in fact, no carefully articulated protocol for ensuring that different experts reach the same conclusion.

Although it is known that different individuals can share certain ridge characteristics, the chance of two individuals sharing any given number of identifying characteristics is not known. How likely is it that two people could have four points of resemblance, or five, or eight? Are the odds of two partial prints from different people matching one in a thousand, one in a hundred thousand, or one in a billion? No fingerprint examiner can honestly answer such questions, even though the answers are critical to evaluating the probative value of the evidence of a match. Moreover, with the partial, potentially smudged fingerprints typical of forensic identification, the chance that two prints will appear to share similar characteristics remains equally uncertain.

The potential error rate for fingerprint identification in actual practice has received virtually no systematic study. How often do real-life fingerprint examiners find a match when none exists? How often do experts erroneously declare two prints to come from a common source? We lack credible answers to these questions. Although some FBI proficiency tests show examiners making few or no errors, these tests have been criticized, even by other fingerprint examiners, as unrealistically easy. Other proficiency tests show more disturbing results: In one 1995 test, 34 percent of test-takers made an erroneous identification. Especially when an examiner evaluates a partial latent print—a print that may be smudged, distorted, and incomplete—it is impossible on the basis of our current knowledge to have any real idea of how likely she is to make an honest mistake. The real-world error rate might be low or might be high; we just don’t know.

Would you want your vote to hinge on that? Maybe it would all go off without a hitch, but what happens if it doesn’t?

2. Would we be matching to a central database? That assumes everyone has been fingerprinted and that their prints are in that central database. I don’t have to spell out the privacy, security, and civil liberties objections to that, do I? Suppose instead that rather than match to a database, you use your fingerprint to sign in, and it is then sent to all the other voting locations to prevent you from trying to vote again elsewhere. This only works if you have reliable network connectivity. What’s the protocal for if it goes down? These are perhaps solvable problems, but they are problems and they would need to be addressed before this can be taken seriously.

3. And then we get into the political objections. Democrats would be hesitant to go along with this because it legitimizes the stated premise for voter ID, which is that there is such a thing as in person voter fraud that needs to be – and can be – stopped by this kind of countermeasure. Beyond the fact that Bigfoot sightings are more common than credible instances of in person voter fraud, this would still not address security concerns about absentee ballots, which have historically been more subject to abuse. Having said that, it’s possible Dems could make a pragmatic choice to accept some sort of voter fingerprint ID scheme in return for, say, same day voter registration or some other proposal to increase voting access, but then you run into the likely Republican objections to this. Any assumption that there’s a compromise to be reached begins with the assumption that Republican backers of voter ID are, against all evidence, sincere about solving a problem and do not want to make it harder for anyone to vote. But even if you do accept that, from the Republican perspective most of their objective in implementing voter ID have been achieved. Between the laws passed by various states since 2011, and the Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans believe, with justification, that they’re winning on voter ID. If you believe you’re winning, what’s your incentive to make a deal? I don’t see what it would be.

So yeah, I don’t see this happening. There’s no natural constituency for it, and even if there were I don’t know that I’d favor it. Voter ID, in any form, remains a solution in search of a problem.

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