Unforced error by election commissioners

Maybe all voters should have to show proof of identification at the polls; maybe not. But regardless of your opinion on this, it is not the policy of New York state for poll workers to ask voters to show ID.

Franklin County’s election commissioners apologized Thursday for telling poll workers to check the ID of voters they didn’t know during the first two hours of Tuesday’s election. Some complaints ensured — in Saranac Lake, at least — after voting began at 6 a.m., and around 8 a.m. the state Board of Elections told them to stop.

We called Democratic Commissioner Kelly Cox and Republican Commissioner Tracy Sparks Thursday to tell them we were going to write an editorial saying the people who run our local elections ought to know and follow state procedures, not make up their own rules. They agreed they had overreacted to a single incidence of alleged voter fraud in the September primary, when a man pointed to a name in the registration book and insisted that was him — even though the name he pointed to was of a woman. He allegedly bullied the poll worker into letting him vote, but he was later charged with election fraud, as he should be. Sparks and Cox admitted they knew of no other voter fraud in their time on the job. They said they were trying to be proactive to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, but they admit they went beyond the bounds of state election rules.

We were glad to hear their honest apologies.

Checking voters’ ID has become a partisan political issue. Many Republicans believe unregistered people are sneaking in to vote for Democrats, and many Democrats believe Republicans are using voter ID requirements, among other restrictions, to suppress the votes of racial minorities and urban poor people, who Democrats say are less likely to have driver’s licenses or other formal ID. Thirty-four states require voters to show some form of ID, but New York is not one of them. Instead, a voter must sign in, and the signature is checked against one on file from one’s registration.

Not only was it unauthorized for Franklin County’s election commissioners to have poll workers ask voters for ID, but the way it was done was clumsy in several ways:

¯ They should have known this would make some people mad and be seen as a partisan action.

¯ They did not announce to the public in advance that they would do so, so voters were not necessarily prepared. People who have been voting for decades and walked to the polls may not have thought to bring their driver’s licenses. The commissioners did call the Enterprise in mid October to say they were worried about voter fraud due to the primary incident, but while they said sheriff’s deputies would be at some polls, they never mentioned asking voters for ID.

¯ They did it arbitrarily, telling poll workers to just check ID for people they didn’t know. That leaves ballot access up to poll workers’ whims, deciding who is suspicious and who is not. How is it fair for a voter to be asked for ID after seeing three people in front of him or her not face that requirement?

Another local voting problem started at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Several dozen people who claimed they had registered to vote at the Franklin County DMV offices in Malone and Saranac Lake, or through the state DMV’s online portal, were not on the voter registry Tuesday. Sparks and Cox said they are not yet sure what happened or who is to blame. We’ll have to follow up on that one.

Franklin County’s voting problems are small compared to the hassles voters endured in places such as New York City, where many spent hours waiting in line. The state Board of Elections leader brushed off these concerns as a normal symptom of high turnout, but clearly, the government agency in charge of elections should have prepared better.

Also, no one is suggesting that Franklin County officials tried to tilt the result one way, as some Democrats say in Georgia, where the secretary of state in charge of elections also happened to be the Republican candidate for governor. Whereas a majority of states have partisan officials in charge of elections, New York’s are run by bipartisan boards at both the state and local level.

Still, the problems here should not have happened. And the commissioners acknowledge that.

People see voting as sacred, but it is also common, held at regular intervals that are not hard to prepare for. Therefore, the public has every reason to expect elections will be carried out professionally, fairly and uneventfully.