Voter Identification Laws: The Specter of Fraud Helps the Right Wing Shape the Electorate

Since the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) established the requirement that first time voters present some form of identification before voting in a federal election, voter identification requirements of all sorts have been enacted across the country.  Currently 26 states have laws that are more restrictive than the HAVA mandate, and 21 states require ID from voters every time they vote.  These laws have been passed by arguing they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, even though all evidence suggests that such fraud is extremely rare and poses no threat to the integrity of our voting systems.  Instead, these fraud arguments have merely been a partisan tool, used for decades, to suppress turnout among new groups entering the electorate in large numbers and threatening the power of those currently in charge, whether they be minorities, immigrants or students.

Evidence of Suppressed Voter Turnout: Sadly, the evidence suggest that these efforts to reduce turnout and shape the electorate for partisan gain are most likely effective and have the greatest impact on poor, less educated, elderly and minority voters. One scholar has estimated that requiring photo identification from all voters would disenfranchise 20 million people.  Indiana and Georgia currently have such a photo identification requirement in order for a vote to be counted.  A challenge to the Indiana law has been heard by the US Supreme Court and a decision is expected by June.

Voter identification laws have also become a favorite tool of anti-immigrant forces and in the 2007-2008 legislative sessions 18 states have introduced bills to require that voters prove they are US citizens.  Fortunately for voters, the only one of these bills to be passed into law so far applies to just one town in Delaware.

Defeating Bad Bills: Legislators in many states are still pushing to impose new voter ID requirements in states that lack them, and continue to argue for making existing requirements more stringent by narrowing the types of ID that can be used.  Happily, it seems that at least temporarily the wave of new voter ID laws in waning as more bills are being voted down than up.  However, we expect that if the Supreme Court rules as expected, and allows Indiana’s photo ID requirement to stand, there will be an even stronger push from conservative forces on this issue in the coming legislative session.  Here’s what has been active in the current session:

  • Kansas is poised to pass Senate Bill 169 which will require photo ID at the polls.  The bill has passed both houses in different versions and now goes to conference committee for reconciliation. One good feature of the bill passed in the House is that it includes anti-Voter Intimidation language to attempt to prevent vote suppression of legal voters using the provision.
  • In Oklahoma the Senate has passed SB 1150 creating a photo ID requirement for voting.  A similar measure, HB 2956, has also passed the House.  Even though passage of one or other of the measures seems assured, Democratic lawmakers have strongly opposed the bill.
  • In Mississippi voter ID has been a contentious issue throughout the session, and has even prompted the Republican caucus to propose loosening felony disenfranchisement rules as a compromise to get it passed.  But while Republican lawmakers have managed to revive the bill by waiving the normal deadline for action, the bill appears dead for now.
  • A bill in Wisconsin, AJR 17, would have amended the state constitution to require ID when voting.  The bill passed the house last year but died in the Senate last month amidst very contentious debate when lawmakers refused to suspend the rules and release it from committee.
  • In Maryland lawmakers defeated HB 1355, which would have required ID to vote, in committee.
  • Consideration of a Colorado ID bill, HB 1039, was postponed indefinitely in February.
  • Legislation put forward by the California Secretary of State requiring ID to vote, SB 173, was defeated in committee.
  • Virginia Senators defeated SB 554 which would have required ID to vote.  A more restrictive bill in the House, HB 65, requiring voters provide valid, state-issued photo ID has been carried over to the 2009 session on a voice vote in committee.

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