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Casting a vote for a national ID card

Civil rights activists might not be able to stop Republicans from seeking electoral advantage by passing unnecessary voter ID laws. But Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and a one-time associate of Martin Luther King Jr., has been promoting a new response: Offer to put people’s photos on their Social Security cards. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was among those warning the idea would lead to a national ID card system. All the better if it were so.

A free, easily obtainable national ID card would offer the benefits of official identification – help with boarding planes, entering government buildings and cashing checks, among many other things – to people who do not have driver’s licenses or passports. A uniform system could also help reshape the irrational way Americans vote: Simply present your card and cast a ballot. Simple rules could manage the relatively small privacy concerns.

Young’s proposal does not go nearly that far. It would merely allow people the option of adding photos to their Social Security cards, making them more effective as government- issued identification. The idea’s backers also say President Barack Obama could establish the policy by executive order, at a cost of about a dime per card, short-circuiting the ideological fuming of some in Congress.

People who want to get a photo Social Security card would still have to show, somehow, that they are who their card says they are, which would require some kind of documentation. The Social Security Administration has a flexible set of criteria for identifying people, accepting church records, for example, when hospital birth records do not exist. But documentation requirements would still be a hurdle for some of the poorest and most vulnerable voters. So, too, might be the distance from Social Security Administration facilities.

The ideal would be a comprehensive, well-funded program approved by Congress and designed to make obtaining and keeping federal ID cards as easy as possible. Given the past effectiveness of lawmakers such as Paul at blocking that sort of initiative, the ideal seems unlikely anytime soon.

In the meantime, given GOP determination to crack down on the virtually nonexistent problem of voter impersonation, there is a good case to use infrastructure that already exists to maximize the number of options people have to obtain proper IDs.