A certain William Wachtel, the co-founder of WhyTuesday, an election reform group chaired by former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, wrote me over the weekend to complain that I treated Young harshly by criticizing his proposal to require Social Security to issue photo IDs. I called it “a terrible idea.” Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute and another co-founder of WhyTuesday, also defended the proposal, which Young mentioned at an event last week marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Ornstein mounted his defense via Twitter, which only made Young’s idea sound even shallower and more foolish. What these gentlemen failed to do is explain why requiring Social Security to issue photo IDs is not a terrible idea. But since they seem to feel strongly about it–Wachtel even suggested that I owe Young a “public apology”; who knew seasoned diplomats could be so sensitive?–it’s proper for me to reinforce my point. Young’s goal is to undercut efforts by Republicans in many states to discourage voting by enacting laws requiring voters to prove their identities with photo IDs. Since people who lack government-issued IDs are disproportionately minorities and the poor and probably tend to vote Democratic, you’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on here. But as I wrote, Young has the wrong answer. His idea could undermine voting rights even more.
Before we get to that, let’s look at the cost of Young’s proposal. He asserts that photo IDs would cost Social Security “fewer than 10 cents a card.” It’s hard to know how he concocted that figure, because that’s not what the Social Security Administration says. According to a study the agency performed in the late 1990s at Congress’s directive, the unit cost for the physical card and photo would be 14 cents; but installing the necessary equipment in its 1,300 field offices, plus authenticating the photos, training personnel and processing the applications, would drive the cost to $15 or more per card.
The agency concluded that to cover that expense and others, it would have to charge $20 per card–in 1996 dollars. That’s if the entire country converted. Issuing photo IDs only to the smaller number of people who couldn’t get them any other way would obviously drive up the unit costs from all the needed infrastructure, possibly to prohibitive levels.