There are many thorny and complex issues in the immigration debate. In a lively Twitter discussion on Thursday, I was discussing work authorization, specifically E-Verify, the national electronic database whereby employers check prospective hires for work eligibility. Midway through this discussion, someone compared it to voter ID requirements, implying a consistent position would be to support both.
On its face this seems like a reasonable consideration. If you want to make sure people are legally authorized to vote, you should also want to make sure they are legally authorized to work, right? Upon futher reflection it becomes clear that these two measures aren’t really very similar, and arguments based on their comparison are dubious at best.
Voter ID is a requirement to access a public civic institution, but E-Verify is a mandate on private businesses. Employers have to screen every applicant for citizenship or work permit status before hiring them. One of the talking points of E-Verify opponents is that it makes every employer a de facto immigration officer and passes the buck of law enforcement to private entities. While actual border enforcement and maintenance of the E-Verify database would remain a federal responsibility, employers would face penalties, perhaps even worse than the unauthorized applicants themselves, for not using the system or violating it.
Another important difference is what each system is designed to prevent. The only requirement to work is legal status in the country, but there are far more restrictions on who can vote and where. Certain felons cannot vote at all in most states, along with anyone under 18. You are also only allowed to vote in certain locations in most states, and only once in each election. So while E-Verify attempts to prevent one type of fraud (so to speak), voter ID protects against many more kinds of abuse.
Even the E-Verify system’s very purpose is up for debate, though there is no comparable argument about the need for a secure vote. Yes, there are arguments about the necessity of voter ID to secure that vote and whether voter fraud is a significant enough problem to warrant such measures, but there is no mainstream argument that anyone should be able to vote anywhere they choose. However, there is reasonable disagreement about whether non-citizens should be able to work in this country. Of course the majority of voters disagree, but many libertarians and progressives argue that employers should be able to hire anyone regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
E-Verify also nationalizes what is currently a private hiring decision, while voter ID is still a state issue. Of course there are already laws against hiring illegal immigrants, and some states already use or mandate E-Verify for employers over a certain size. However, mandating it nationwide removes federalism from the process. No longer can an employer move to a state that does or does not use the system, as they can with tax rates and other business regulations.
Now, every business in the country would have to get approval for every hire from Washington DC. There is no national ID, so voter ID remains necessarily federalist. Each state enacts and regulates it at their pleasure. Indeed, the idea of a national ID for such purposes makes even the most strident conservatives balk.
Although huge majorities support the concept, most voters actually oppose E-Verify when they consider the cost to employers (What, you thought it would be free?). Similarly, high majorities support voter ID, even with the knowledge that it may be at least partially used for partisan political purposes.