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As several states enter critical phases in their legislative sessions, the debate for one of the most controversial election reforms continues to dominate headlines and legislative hearings. This year, more than 26 states introduced legislation to go above and beyond federal election law relating to voter ID, despite near consensus among voting rights advocates that it hurts the process far more than it helps. Last week, the hysteria around voter ID reached an all time high in six states, evoking public concern from advocates and citizens alike.
The once divisive issue now has citizens questioning their states lawmakers’ obsession with voter ID when there are larger problems in the administration of elections – including voter access issues – that trump the virtually non-existent issue of polling place voter fraud.
“We should be thinking of ways to make voting easier and more accessible to people, rather than scheming up ways to disenfranchise voters,” said Pennsylvania resident Tim McCann in a Philadelphia Intelligencer letter to the editor last week. McCann criticized the Intelligencer for supporting voter ID in the state in a March 25 editorial.
“Some states are experimenting with Internet voting, early voting and voting by mail. Instead, we have a bunch of Republican senators who are trying to make it harder to vote – and your newspaper is supporting that effort.”
McCann’s sentiment was voiced by a number of voting rights advocates who ultimately pressured the Senate to “delay further action” on voter ID last week, according to another March 25 Intelligencer report.
“There’s not an issue with impersonation voter fraud” (the only type of illegal activity a voter ID law would prevent), Kathy Boockvar of the nonpartisan group Advancement Project told the Intelligencer.
“Many people, including legislators, may not realize that as many as 25 percent of African Americans, 18 percent of senior citizens, and 15 percent of low-income Americans simply do not have the types of current photo ID required by this bill,” Boockvar said.
While the threat of voter ID in Pennsylvania is now in limbo, citizens and advocates in South Carolina and Tennessee are broadcasting their dissent for pending bills in their states.
In a Tennessean opinion piece last week, ACLU National Board Representative Joseph Sweat commented on how his 82-year-old mother in law – who had been voting “since Harry Truman ran for president in 1948” – would be disenfranchised by pending voter ID bills in Tennessee that conflict with current, unrelated law. Sweat’s mother-in-law “took advantage of the Tennessee law that allows drivers over 65 to choose not to have their photographs on their driver’s license,” he wrote. “So, for abiding by this law she may soon be denied the right to vote unless she goes through a lot of unnecessary and downright un-American hassle and expense.”
Calling it a “straw man” argument because “proponents of voter ID have failed over and over again to demonstrate that individual voter fraud is a pervasive problem anywhere in the country,” Sweat said the passage of such law would equate to a poll tax, impose more problems at the polling place, and cost taxpayers several hundred thousands of dollars despite the already existing economic crisis in the state.
Sweat concluded that, with the state already in economic crisis, the associated costs might quash legislators’ thirst for passing one of the seven pending ID bills. Currently, Senate Bill 150 is the only bill to have advanced in the Tenn. legislature in the last week.
A widely reported – and widely opposed – South Carolina voter ID bill (SB 3418) would reportedly affect the voting rights of 343,000 South Carolinians, The bill was scheduled to be heard last week, according to the Associated Press, but rescheduled for today. The outcome of the scheduled hearing is unknown at this time. Opponents of the bill include American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, NAACP and AARP, the AP reported.
Three more states have exhibited greater threats of voter ID, one of which actually enacted a voter ID bill just last week.
Although it went largely under the radar, the governor of Utah signed House Bill 126 into law last week, requiring all voters to present either one form of photographic proof of identity (unless it is a tribal ID) or two non-photo IDs proving name and address before voting in person. Earlier this year, the bill was strongly opposed by advocates because it “will disenfranchise hundreds, if not thousands of voters in Utah in order to solve [the] nonproblem,” of voter fraud, according to advocates at local blog, Utah Legislature Watch.
Following in Utah’s footsteps, the Oklahoma legislature approved a “preventive measure,” voter ID Senate Bill 4 yesterday, despite Democratic Governor Brad Henry’s “serious concerns about unintended consequences” relating to voter ID legislation, according to the Oklahoman today.
“While the voter ID concept sounds good on the surface, there are valid concerns that such requirements would keep some eligible voters at home, particularly senior citizens,” said Henry’s spokesperson, Paul Sund. “The right to vote is one of our country’s most precious freedoms, and Governor Henry believes lawmakers must be especially careful when they attempt to tinker with this basic right.”
If Henry vetoes the bill, SB 4 author Sen. Charles Ford plans to “work on another bill that would bypass the governor and send the question of voter ID to a vote of the people,” the Oklahoman reported. However, “House Democratic leader Danny Morgan opposed SB 4, saying legislators’ time would be better spent addressing real problems, not imaginary ones” Morgan said that even the Republican House author of the bill could not “offer a case of voter fraud. “It’s funny to me that we took up this unnecessary legislation on the same day as we were supposed to finalize a budget for common education,” he said.
Despite Oklahoma’s intensive efforts to pass voter ID, Texas takes the cake for the dramatic measures legislators have taken to pass or fight voter ID in recent years. After a 23 hour Senate hearing in March that lead to the passage of voter ID Senate Bill 362, the House plans to hold a two-day hearing next week in an effort to “spare the House from a partisan bloodbath,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.
“Rep. Todd Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Elections, wants that panel to hear invited testimony April 6, with members of the public welcome to speak April 7,” according to the report.
Other “compromises” are being made in alternate drafts of the voter ID bill that “could bring members of both parties together.” Rep. Joe Heflin (D-Crosbyton) hopes to present a draft that would phase in voter ID over a four-to-six year period, exempt voters over the age of 65, provide photos on voter registration cards, and ensure the state has money to pay for ID as well as support and expand voter education and registration efforts.
t week, “he outlined some of his ideas to [Republican chairman of the House committee on Elections, Rep. Todd] Smith, who didn’t reject any out of hand, though he said he wants to hear testimony about their feasibility and potential costs before making commitments.”
Compromise or not, the Texas publication the Lubbock Avalanche Journal questions lawmakers’ priorities in the legislature at such a critical time. “With other seemingly more pressing matters demanding lawmakers’ attention, such as the state budget for the next two years and the struggling economy, photo ID is what they’re focusing on?”
Opinion writer Jaime Castillo at the San Antonio Express-News wondered the same. “There isn’t a district attorney in the state of Texas who says there is a crisis involving people trying to impersonate others in the voting booth,” he wrote. “So, to put it into perspective, the Legislature will literally spend weeks debating a voter ID bill that solves no problem.”
With one bill enacted, one bill withdrawn, and four more high profile bills pending, it is clear that lawmakers continue to focus on voter ID over other, serious election administration problems, doing nothing to make elections truly fair, honest, and accessible. As the citizens who are less likely to possess required ID tend to already be historically underrepresented in the electorate, it’s time for lawmakers to stop the partisan politics and focus their attention on expanding access to the polls, not restricting it.
To monitor voter ID bills in these states, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.