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U.S. electoral system requires reform, biometric technology

It is an understatement to observe that the United States has an electoral system that is completely disorganized, and which is not designed or funded to cope with high turnout.

On the run up to recent U.S. presidential election, David Frum, a conservative commentator labeled America’s voting system a “disgrace”. He noted in a CNN opinion piece that: “Americans worry more about voter fraud than do voters in other countries, because they are the only country without a reliable system of national identification. In no other country, including federal systems such as Germany, Canada and Australia, does the citizen’s opportunity to vote depend on the affluence and competence of his or her local government.”

In the U.S., elections are organized at a local level, and are therefore dependent on the financial and human resources that states and municipalities can marshal. A shortage of aging, mechanical voting machines in poorer districts and strict identity checks often means long lines.

Laws demanding photo identification, such as a driver’s license, in states such as Indiana, Arizona and Florida have been criticized as discriminatory against the poor. Such laws, which are proposed and passed by politicians, have been derided as voter suppression tactics, especially in areas with disproportionate amounts of poverty and visible minorities.

In the United States, about 13,000 counties and municipalities manage national elections, and all have different rules. Because partisan officials generally control the process, the opposition is often suspicious of results in close elections.

More than a decade ago, in the wake of the 2001 Bush vs. Gore presidential election fiasco, a bipartisan commission chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford called for a total and urgent overhaul of the electoral system. They appealed for more uniform voting procedures and for Congress to help states that want to reform their voting systems. But they stopped short of asking for the federal government to set standards.

In contrast, Robert A. Pastor, a professor at American University, argues that a set of nationwide standards are necessary. He notes that many other countries, including the United State’s closest neighbors, have more successful voter registration and voter identification undertakings.

As an example, he points out that Mexico’s non-partisan election administration, the Instituto Federal Electoral, has been able to actively register approximately 95 percent of the 77 million Mexicans eligible to vote. Mexico has achieved this by providing nearly all of its eligible voters with biometric, electronic identity cards, which Mexicans use as primary identification.

An eID card is typically a government-issued document for online and offline identification, which in theory can be the only piece of identification that a citizen requires for all interactions with government. The cards can be used for multiple purposes, including as a health insurance card, a social security card, a driver’s license, and for general identification.

As recently noted by the Biometric Research Group, the market for such electronic identity, or eID cards, is slated to grow to US$5.2 billion in global revenue by 2015 and is further projected to reach US$11.2 billion by 2020.

Many other countries, including Brazil, France, Indonesia, Poland, Russia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have been issuing electronic identity cards that will replace conventional identity cards. With the issuance of these cards, these nations will be able to streamline voter registration, not unlike Mexico, to ensure a voter’s proof of eligibility.

Biometric identification helps prevents multiple registrations and also prevents the registration of disqualified voters. For these reasons, the use of biometrics for voter registration has been a popular option exercised by governments throughout Latin America and increasingly in Africa, as indicated in many articles in BiometricUpdate.com published this year.

The United States however continues to cling to old technology and localized control over the voter system. The result has been a voter registration patchwork that only passively registers approximately 55 percent of eligible voters. Without nationwide standards, a patchwork of elector lists contain duplicates and errors, especially between states and counties.

Pastor argues that the only way to eliminate these issues is through the adoption of a national, biometric ID system. He is right that such a switch would eliminate duplicate voter registrations and simplify the entire registration and voting process. However, with the current state of intransigence gripping America’s two-party political system, and with a lack of consensus on the most basic of economic and social issues, it is hard to foresee any rational electoral reform taking place in the U.S. soon.

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