To ID or not to ID

November 25, 2005

The rules governing elections in La Plata, a town of 8,500 people and county seat of Southern Maryland's Charles County, are a little different. The general election is held every odd year. It's conducted just two weeks after the primary. And to be eligible to vote, a town resident has to show an acceptable form of identification. It's this last provision that's captured the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. They believe La Plata's ID requirement is unconstitutional, and we think they're right.

The issue of voter ID has always been about striking a balance between the prevention of voter fraud and protecting the individual's right to vote. Rarely do voters misrepresent themselves at the polls. But it's not so hard to find people who've been discouraged from participating in an election. That's why Maryland doesn't require ID in state elections unless the voter's identification is challenged. (A first-time voter who registers by mail must also present ID.) Requiring ID for everyone, however, is an unnecessary burden, particularly for the poor who may not have a driver's license or some other form of ID in hand.

Officials in La Plata say it's not their intention to discourage eligible voters. Apparently, the requirement was introduced in 1981 when officials noticed that a few county residents, unaware that they lived beyond La Plata's boundaries, thought they were eligible to vote. But offering provisional ballots to people whose identities are questioned - ballots that can be counted or discarded later depending on whether a voter's ID checks out - can prevent any potential abuse.

Like much of fast-growing Southern Maryland, Charles County is changing and La Plata has its share of newcomers. But like poll taxes, mandating ID at the polling booth is a proven way to reduce voter participation. Maryland's Constitution says residents have a right to vote if they meet registration, age and residency requirements. Even in a small town, an ID roadblock goes too far.

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