States Require New Proof of Identity at Polls

 
Voting in some states soon may feel like checking into the airport: Get ready to flash some photo identification.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signed a law April 22 that requires voters to show a photo ID before voting, giving his state one of the stiffest election laws in the country. Similar photo ID bills passed the legislatures in both Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) has said he will sign it, and in Wisconsin, where Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has vowed a veto. South Carolina also requires a photo ID.

The photo ID bills are meant to clamp down on voter fraud at a time when Americans are polarized and when close local and national elections have put new emphasis on the ideal that every vote counts. But the rules are under attack from civil liberties and civil rights groups, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who argue the laws put up voting barriers especially to the poor and minorities and smack of pre-civil rights movement Jim Crow regulations.

"You have one segment of legislators that is extremely concerned that if you don't have this in place, you can't guarantee every vote is legitimate," said Kristin Armshaw, who analyzes civil justice issues for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of conservative state legislators that supports voter identification measures. "On the other hand, some legislators consider this as a form of a poll tax."

Twenty states now require voters to provide some piece of identification. In South Carolina and now Georgia, if a voter doesn't have a photo ID, he?must vote on a provisional ballot that can more easily be challenged and disqualified.

Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and South Dakota also request photo IDs but, as an alternative, allow a voter to sign an affidavit or recite corresponding personal information to cast a ballot at the polling place. Other states such as New Mexico, which recently passed a voter identification law, allow for a broader range of personal documents to present at the ballot box, such as utility bills.

It is a popular issue. At least 25 state lawmakers introduced voter identification proposals this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislators -- proposals often followed by statehouse slugfests.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) already has vowed to file a court challenge to Georgia's new law, which also drew angry protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Jackson, who is planning a voters' rights rally in Georgia this summer.

"For disenfranchised populations, particularly minority populations, who have experienced problems in the past, this is another obstacle," said Charlie Mitchell, a state legislative counsel for the ACLU. "It may not keep a lot of people from the polls. But that's not the point. Even if it keeps some people from the polls, there must be a compelling state interest to restrict anyone's right to vote, and there is no example of this."

Walter Butler, president of the Georgia branch of the NAACP, said even the tiniest distraction could hurt election participation numbers, particularly among the elderly and poor who may have difficulty obtaining a photo ID such as a passport or driver's license. Minorities also might be unfairly affected because they are disproportionably poor, according to U.S. Census figures.

"I have been registering voters for over 30 years," said Butler, who has driven church members from his parish to the polls. "And when you put something extra out there to cause a person to go another step in order to register or vote, it impedes them and cuts down on the number of people that do vote."

But supporters have been equally vocal, insisting the law would empower legitimate voters by ensuring that their ballots aren't diluted by cheaters.

Bob Williams, president of the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation, said the problem is voter fraud. He cited a 2004 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that noted 61 investigations into election fraud between 2000 and 2003.

"The biggest problem is that we have so many well-meaning, well-intended state officials who feel that their main responsibility is to make it as easy as possible to vote," said Williams, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Washington state. "But that's in contrast to many state constitutions where voting is not a right, but a privilege."

To push this ideal, Williams is busy tracking "major problems" in state election regulations for ALEC in the hopes of crafting model legislation for the group. The model likely would follow the outline of those in Georgia, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Much of the civil rights controversy escaped Indiana state Sen.Vic Heinold (R), who sponsored the voter ID bill now sitting on his governor's desk. He said he was inspired to introduce his bill after a conversation on the campaign trail.

"I was campaigning this summer in a minivan and met a postal worker in Indianapolis," Heinold said. "And he asked me what I was going to do about all the people voting more than once in the city."

A surprising question, Heinold said. But after hearing the man had been approached with an offer to vote more than once, Heinold said he was convinced Indiana needed a way to prevent voter fraud.

"I didn't think it was controversial," Heinold said, arguing legitimate voters are being marginalized by cheaters, at least the ones who are caught. "We have no grasp on the amount of fraud out there."

Jennie Bowser, who tracks election issues for the bipartisan NCSL, said the abundance of voter ID bills may stem from the simple fact that Americans use IDs more often in everyday life.

"You have to show it to get a rental car, to go to the bank," Bowser said. "That you don't have to do it when you're voting seems almost incongruent to supporters of voter ID." 

 
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