Click to Return to

Democrats should embrace FBI background check for voters and gun purchasers alike

September 22, 2017, at The Hill

By John R. Lott, Jr.


Background checks are required for so many things from getting a job to buying a gun. But despite legitimate concerns about voting by illegal aliens and felons, Democrats become outraged by the mention of checks for voting.

Last week, in testimony to the President’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, I suggested using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to screen for ineligible voters. Democrats have long lauded this system, calling it simple, accurate, and in complete harmony with the second amendment right to own guns. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) bragged that the checks are done “without in any way abridging rights.” Former Vice President Joe Biden claimed that expanding the system to cover all private transfers of guns would not be “in any way imposing on or impinging on the rights that the Second Amendment guarantees.” 

But literally only a few states currently even try in any way to check whether registered voters are US citizens. In 34 states, felons are not able to vote immediately upon release from prison. Even the states that check people criminal records rely on just records in their own states.

The NICS checks information from the entire country and looks at more than people’s criminal histories. It also checks on citizenship status. So why not use that information to prevent ineligible people from voting?

Background checks for gun purchases are costly, running roughly $55 to $175 for checks on private gun transfers. Requiring federally licensed gun dealers to do checks on each individual transfer is somewhat time-consuming. The current NICS system places the entire financial burden on gun buyers. This is unfair to poor people just trying to obtain a gun for self-defense, just as it would be unfair to voters.

But checks on voters would be a simple and very low-cost process. States would compare a state’s computer database of voters with NICS. Indeed, many states already regularly compare their list of concealed handgun permit holders to ensure that they are still eligible to carry. Under my proposal, the states would pick up the costs. 

The reaction to using NICS for voting was swift and harsh. “Horrified,” “patently absurd,” and “flabbergasted” were some of the reactions. That it was being proposed just to “suppress” voting. Reporters attacked my qualifications. The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham assertedthat except for one unpublished paper, I had not done any other research “on elections or voting.” CNN’s Eric Bradner quoted someone questioning whether I was really “an academic” and that I hadn't written anything about elections in a decade. ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman attacked Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach for “falsely” saying I am a “prolific author” in academic publications.

But I have published 19 peer-reviewed, academic articles on the issues of elections, voting, and election law. My most recent is from 2014. I also served as a statistical expert for USA Today on the 2000 presidential election, wrote the Statistical Report on that election for the Minority members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and testified before the US Senate on election issues. In total, I have published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and I have held academic positions at the Wharton Business School, University of Chicago, and Yale.

Salon’s Heather Parton argued that I am disqualified from the discussion because I usually study “gun violence on behalf of the NRA.” But the NRA has never paid for my research.

Most of the responses have been personal in nature. But there have also been some more substantive comments.

A Kansas City Star editorial raised the concern that, “A background check does sound like an efficient way to suppress the vote.” But Democrats claim that costly background checks don't suppress or infringe on gun ownership. So what’s so oppressive about a background check that is free for voters?

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump worries that background checks will “slow the process of registering to vote,” by requiring voters to fill out the same “complex” form that is needed to buy a gun. But many of the questions for buying a gun aren’t relevant to voting. For example, mental health, dishonorable discharge from the military, misdemeanor domestic violence, and drug addictions don’t affect one's ability to vote. To do the background checks, people registering to vote could provide the same information that they currently do, with possibly adding their social security number.

Bump claims background checks will prove to be very costly, running around $2.55 per check. But Bump is confused about how the system works. The main cost of running the system comes from putting criminal and citizenship information into the database. That information is already being collected on all Americans on the chance that they might decide today to go and buy a gun. The cost of matching up state voter lists to the NICS system is trivial compared to the costs of compiling and maintaining all of the data to begin with. So it won't involve much added expense to perform voting checks using the existing NICS system.

Unfortunately, Democrats and the media have never been concerned about these costs imposed on those wanting to protect themselves and their families.

Finally, UCLA professor Adam Winkler claims the NICS system can’t work for voting because the regulations on gun ownership are “entirely different.” While there are differences, there is also a large overlap, and states can be provided specifically with the information that is only relevant to determining voter eligibility.

Democrats have long dismissed evidence that the NICS system is blocking the wrong people from getting guns, simply because their names phonetically resemble the names of prohibited people. But there is an incredibly simple solution to this problem. Just require that the government use a person's exact name, social security number, birthdate, and address.

While Democrats praise background checks as reducing crime, most research doesn’t support that view. But stopping criminals from getting guns is a lot more difficult than using background checks to stop ineligible people from voting. Stopping drug gangs from getting illegal guns is about as easy as stopping them from bringing in illegal drugs into the U.S. But who gets to go through the line at a voting booth is a lot easier to monitor. 

The NICS system solves all of the objections that Democrats are likely to raise. They are on record believing that it is a fair and accurate system that doesn’t prevent eligible people from buying a gun. But Democrats' hysteria over applying this to voter registration raises real questions about their sincerity.

Do you like this page?