The Bitter Battle Over Voter ID

Republican-controlled legislatures are pushing strict voter identification. They say it's to limit fraud. Opponents say the goal is to exclude people of color.

Jewel Sawad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Sawad/AFP/Getty Images

On the list of types of state legislation with the potential for big national impact, voter identification is right up there with moves to reduce collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions.

Such efforts, which would require voters to provide ID at the polls, are being voted on amid fierce debate in many states. But are they motivated by a sincere desire to eliminate voter fraud, thus ensuring the integrity of the electoral process? Or are they attempts to disenfranchise segments of voters favorable to one party — guaranteeing the other party an easier route to electoral success in 2012 — by fighting a problem that doesn’t really exist?

That depends on whom you ask.

The bills being considered are overwhelmingly the inspiration of Republicans in legislatures much friendlier to GOP goals after the 2010 midterm elections. “It’s no conspiracy,” says South Carolina Senate GOP Caucus Director Wesley Donehue. “We haven’t talked to anybody nationally. It’s all South Carolina based.” He said the bill that’s making its way through the legislature is one that state Republicans have been pushing for five years. “We want to make sure our elections here are fair, accessible and secure.”

“The Republican side will tell you this is to cut down on voting fraud,” says Donehue’s Democratic counterpart, Phil Bailey, caucus director for South Carolina Senate Democrats. “I will tell you this is something the national and state parties are pushing because of how effective the Democrats have been in getting folks to the polls. They don’t like those television images of young people and African Americans lining up to vote for President Obama.”

Twenty-seven states require all prospective voters to show some form of ID to vote, according to a 2010 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, updated in March 2011. Eight (Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota) request a photo ID.

In most states, no voter is turned away, but in Georgia and Indiana, voters without an acceptable form of identification can cast a provisional ballot but must return within a few days to show election officials a photo ID in order for their ballots to count. Laws in the two states have been models for much of the current legislation.

Both legislative chambers in Kansas this year passed bills that would require voters to show identification. A conference committee has been tasked to reconcile the Senate bill, which would delay until 2013 a proof-of-citizenship requirement, with a tougher House version that would give the secretary of state authority to prosecute election fraud.

After hours of contentious debate, on March 23 Ohio House Republicans passed what could be the country’s most restrictive voter-identification law, one that for in-person voting would accept only a Ohio driver’s license, state ID, military ID or passport. The bill now heads to the state Senate.

Reminders of Civil Rights Struggles

In the South, the debate over bills that would require additional hurdles for voters brings with it the language of a modern civil war. The region’s history of racial discrimination extended prominently to voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in attendance, it prevented states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting.”