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."
Because of their histories of discriminatory practices, several states, counties and cities were required — under Section 5 of the act — to obtain "preclearance" from the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before enacting any changes in voting rules. In Texas, one of those states, Republican Gov. Rick Perry put legislation requiring voters to show photo identification on the fast track earlier this year. On March 23 the GOP-dominated House approved the bill, which now goes to the Senate. Some Hispanic groups argue that demographic changes in the border state are a reason for GOP urgency.
In North Carolina, where some counties are still vetted under the Voting Rights Act, many Democrats are pushing against GOP-sponsored legislation requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. While Republicans said the bill is needed to maintain the integrity of the system, state Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Democrat, in a recent statement called it "a solution in search of a problem."
He wrote, "Voter fraud is exceedingly rare nationwide. Yet, there are approximately one million people in North Carolina who do not have voter identification. Many of these people are elderly or poor. Requiring them to obtain and show ID to vote would disenfranchise them from the whole process."
Next door, South Carolina has close to a one-party state government. The GOP controls the Statehouse, and Republican Nikki Haley was elected governor in the fall. It's also a state where any voting-policy changes face Justice Department "preclearance."
A Republican sponsor of a South Carolina House bill that would require photo identification took on some of the criticism in a column in the State newspaper. State Rep. Alan Clemmons, who chairs the House Election Laws Subcommittee and is a real estate attorney, said charges that the bill would disenfranchise the poor and elderly "are just smokescreens." He wrote, "The requirement to present an ID has become ingrained in the normal operation of society." Clemmons said that he expected the South Carolina voter-ID policy, like a similar one in Georgia, to be approved by the Justice Department.
According to Department of Justice guidelines, "There are two necessary components to the analysis of whether a proposed redistricting plan meets the Section 5 standard. The first is a determination that the jurisdiction has met its burden of establishing that the plan was adopted free of any discriminatory purpose. The second is a determination that the jurisdiction has met its burden of establishing that the proposed plan will not have a retrogressive effect."
A 2006 study (pdf) from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights examined three legislative periods — 1965 to 1974, 1975 to 1982 and 1982 to 2004 — and found that the percentage of Justice Department objections to submitted changes from covered jurisdictions has "declined markedly over 40 years to the point that during the last decade, objections have virtually disappeared."
Targeting Early Voting
Unlike North Carolina and many other states, South Carolina does not have early voting, which leads to another complication in the bill that the state House passed this session. It would end South Carolina's policy of in-person absentee voting, which in practice has been similar to early voting. Any voter who meets one in a list of reasons that he or she can't get to the polls on Election Day — such as being out of town or at work — and signs a statement is allowed to vote early at a county voter-registration office.
Donehue, the GOP caucus director, favors a compromise bill passed with bipartisan support in the state Senate that would exempt those 65 and older and establish an early-voting policy. "I think the Justice Department is going to love it," he said. "They will congratulate us."
Without some provision for early voting, "It would be pretty difficult to meet Justice Department muster," he continued. "Anytime the state limits access, you're going to have trouble." But Republicans in the House — where the bill has returned for debate — "don't like the early voting." Why don't they like it? "I honestly don't know," Donehue says.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, a Democrat and a lawyer, sees GOP efforts as "clearly an attempt for them to kill people's opportunity to vote." Hutto joined some Democrats in voting against the compromise bill because they wanted to send a message. The new rules would hurt those over 65, like his 93-year-old grandmother, who "hasn't driven in years or used her expired passport," he says.
"There have been no identified problems with our system of voting to suggest there has been any fraud," Hutto adds.
All of the debates are taking place as states struggle to close budget deficits, and changes in voter policy would cost money. States would have to educate the public and issue valid photo IDs to legitimate voters who need them. (In South Carolina, a $5 fee for a photo ID would be waived at local Department of Motor Vehicle offices.)
Donehue said it's worth it to "make sure there's no election fraud in South Carolina." He cited the 2004 case of a Florence man charged with turning in more than 1,000 bogus voter-registration forms to the county voter-registration office, including one naming the Florence mayor.
Chris Whitmire, a spokesperson for the South Carolina State Election Commission, says that while he recalled one example of that sort of violation, when someone was paid according to the number of names turned in, "There were no confirmed instances of voter-identification fraud in South Carolina during the 2010 general election." He says that the nonpartisan agency defines voter fraud as someone going to the polls and pretending to be someone else for the purposes of voting. "We haven't had any instances of that in recent history," he says.
While the commission doesn't have a position on voter ID, it does support early voting. Many voters are already using the in-person absentee option, so "why not create an early-voting period and give voters what they want and what they need?" Whitmore says.
As voter-identification legislation is poked, prodded and vetted in the run-up to the 2012 presidential race and political battle lines are drawn, one wonders what role the needs of voters will ultimately play.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root. She is a weekly commentator on TV's Fox News Rising Charlotte, contributes to NPR and was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.