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Controversy: Requiring an ID to vote
Are tougher state election laws an attempt to stop voter fraud, or a stealth campaign to disenfranchise Democrats?
 
Seven states have passed laws this year requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls, and Democrats allege that it's part of a campaign to suppress the votes of students and minorities.
Seven states have passed laws this year requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls, and Democrats allege that it's part of a campaign to suppress the votes of students and minorities.
Larry W. Smith/CORBIS

What do new voting laws require?
Seven states — all but one of them governed by Republicans — have passed laws this year requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. The new laws in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin are similar to ones already on the books in Georgia and Indiana. GOP lawmakers in as many as 24 more states hope to adopt legislation mandating photo IDs for voters before the 2012 elections. Republicans say the new measures aim only to prevent voter fraud, but Democrats see them as part of a concerted campaign to suppress the vote of students, minorities, and legal immigrants — groups that generally favor Democratic candidates.

Why are these laws being introduced?
Republican lawmakers say their long-standing concerns about voter fraud were exacerbated during the 2008 elections. Some conservatives believe the community-organizing group ACORN deliberately registered thousands of illegal voters under false names, and then encouraged them to vote for Barack Obama. While investigators haven't found evidence that illegal voters registered by the now-bankrupt organization actually cast ballots, a number of ACORN regional officials and workers have since been convicted of election fraud. The controversy sparked a GOP crusade to ensure that people turning up to vote really are who they say they are. "A simple requirement that a voter demonstrate his authentic identity assures that free elections remain untainted by fraud," said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission.

How big a problem is voter fraud?
It depends whom you ask. Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas and the GOP's leading voice on voting reform, says electoral fraud occurs in all 50 states. In Colorado, he says, authorities found 11,805 illegal aliens on the registration rolls, as many as 4,947 of whom voted in 2010. Democrats counter that the problem has been vastly overstated, pointing out that the Justice Department convicted only 86 people of voter fraud between 2002 and 2007. There is independent evidence, however, that some fraud goes undetected by the authorities. A 2004 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that 1,650 Floridians voted twice in 2000 or 2002. And the New York Daily News discovered that 46,000 people were registered to vote in both New York and Florida in 2004, and that as many as 1,000 of them did so.

Could fraud affect elections?
It doesn't take much. Al Franken of Minnesota won his Senate seat in 2008 by just 312 votes, and George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 by a margin of 537 hotly contested votes in Florida. The Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, concluded in 2005 that even the smallest occurrences of fraud could have significant repercussions. "There is no evidence of extensive fraud in U.S. elections or of multiple voting," said the report, "but both occur, and it could affect the outcome of a close election."

Why do the Democrats object?
They say voter ID laws discriminate against poor people, young people, and minorities. One in four black Americans does not possess any form of government ID, according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, and many foreign-born Americans lack the papers, such as a birth certificate, required to obtain a driver's license or state ID. Texas accepts gun licenses as proof of identity, but not student IDs, making it harder for college students — who voted two-to-one for Democrats in 2008 — to cast their ballots. To get a "free" ID in South Carolina, voters must first pay for either a birth certificate or a passport. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil-rights movement, called the raft of new laws a "deliberate and systematic attempt" to discourage millions of poor and minority people from voting. If the 2012 presidential election is close, cutting the turnout by such voters could tip the outcome to the GOP. And there is evidence that some conservatives do hope that voter ID laws will suppress electoral turnout by legal voters. In a piece on the conservative blog American Thinker earlier this month, blogger Matthew Vadum said it was "un-American" to let the poor vote. "The poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians," Vadum said. "Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals."

So are voter ID laws like a poll tax?
Like a poll tax, voter ID laws will undoubtedly discourage some people from voting, and most of them will be young, poor, or racial minorities. But that doesn't mean voter ID laws are illegal or unconstitutional. In 2008, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court validated a voter ID law passed in Indiana, ruling that requiring such IDs has become commonplace in public life. Justice John Paul Stevens, then the leading liberal on the bench, wrote that visiting the local Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a photo ID "does not qualify as a substantial burden on the right to vote." The Carter/Baker report made the same argument in 2005. "Photo identification cards are currently needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash
a check," it said. "Voting is equally important."

Stop 'rocking the vote'
"Get out the vote" groups are now getting a hostile reception in many states. In 2004, voter registration drives run by nonprofit groups such as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters signed up 10 million voters — many from traditionally disenfranchised groups, among them the disabled, the poor, and minorities. But the ACORN controversy has prompted a widespread crackdown on such efforts. In Florida, for example, anyone who signs up voters must submit the registration forms to the state within 48 hours or face possible felony prosecution. GOP lawmakers say the legislation will stamp out fraud, but the League of Women Voters — which has decided to stop registering voters in Florida — calls it "good old-fashioned voter suppression."

 

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