Voter ID laws carry hefty price tag for cash-strapped states

Voter ID.jpgIn 2010, Republicans campaigned on the issues of jobs, taxes and the economy -- and with  states still reeling from scarce jobs and tight budgets, GOP leaders have pledged to keep that focus.

In North Carolina, incoming House Speaker Rep. Thom Tillis (R) opened the 2011 session this week by putting wrist-bands on the desks of every house member that said "Think Jobs" -- the same ones he gave to GOP candidates last fall, with instructions to snap them if they ever wandered off-message.

But as state legislatures have opened for business over the last week, GOP lawmakers have begun not by pushing bills focused on jobs, but for measures that would require citizens to show photo identification while voting -- laws which, among other controversial features, will end up costing states tens of millions of dollars to implement.

GOP leaders have introduced voter ID bills or plan to in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin. In Texas -- which faces a budget shortfall of over $10 billion -- Gov. Rick Perry (R) went so far as to declare voter ID a legislative "emergency" to fast-track the bill.

All the bills have sparked controversy. For one, there's scant evidence that voter impersonation at the polls -- the one kind of fraud that ID laws address -- is a big problem. The bills are also viewed by Democrats and voting rights advocates as deeply partisan, given studies that show the elderly, African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and other constituencies are most likely to not have the needed ID cards.

But at a time when states face staggering budget shortfalls, the biggest problem facing voter ID bills may be that states simply can't afford them.

An effective, full-scale voter ID program can easily end up costing state taxpayers $20 million or more -- the three-year price tag officials estimated in 2010 for a program in Missouri. For most states, such a costly program would be a suspect luxury in ordinary times; it's nearly impossible to justify in in today's economic crisis.

Among the costs that cash-strapped states face from voter ID laws:

* VOTER EDUCATION: State officials agree that voter ID laws require major publicity and education efforts to avoid voter confusion and make sure legitimate voters aren't turned away at the polls. In 2010, Missouri estimated it would cost $16.9 million [pdf] for TV, radio and newspaper announcements and other outreach to the state's 4 million voters.

* WHO PAYS FOR I.D.? Studies show that up to 11% of citizens don't have a photo ID. Forcing voters to buy cards has made states the target of lawsuits claiming such costs amount to a modern-day poll tax. To solve the problem, many states now issue free ID cards, but it's expensive: In 2009, Wisconsin (3.5 million voters) projected a total $2.4 million cost [pdf]; Missouri estimated $3.4 million [pdf].

* IMPLEMENTING VOTER ID: Voter ID laws generate dozens of new costs for state and local officials: accommodating longer lines at DMV offices, updating forms and websites, hiring and training staff to handle provisional ballots for those who don't have ID on Election Day. In 2009, Maryland estimated it would cost one county over $95,000 a year [pdf] just to hire and train precinct judges to examine IDs of voters. With local governments already cutting programs and staff to the bone, states will likely need to appropriate millions of dollars each year to help cover these new expenses.

While high, these figures may not even fully capture the full costs of a voter ID program. For years, state leaders have been hiding or low-balling the budget impacts of voter ID measures, presumably to help get them passed amidst bitter partisan controversy.

A Facing South analysis of the fiscal notes, or cost estimates lawmakers are required to submit with proposed bills, in five states* finds that lawmakers routinely failed to budget for essential elements of carrying out a voter ID law, including informing voters, administrative costs, hiring and training staff and other necessary expenses.

In other cases, state budget estimates have noted the expenses, but blithely said they would be "absorbed" by existing state and local agencies. When Georgia signed its amended ID bill into law in 2006, lawmakers infamously didn't even include a fiscal note [pdf] with the bill, even though the state admitted counties would need at least $1 million for equipment alone. In 2009, Texas officials similarly tried to side-step the costs, making the astonishing claim that their program would have "no significant fiscal implication to the State."

Such budgetary sleights-of-hand may have worked in the past, but they're unlikely to be accepted by officials today as they are asked to slash budgets and lay off core staff at every level of government.

In short, the more honest state officials are about what's needed to implement a voter ID program -- and the less they try to push those costs off onto already-struggling agencies -- the higher the price tag.

Given the much bigger problems facing states today, is the GOP's voter ID crusade really something they can afford?

* Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin