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GOP Pushes Voter ID Bills in the South Print E-mail


March 27, 2009

Voter ID legislation continues to be a hot-button issue across the country. When the Supreme Court ruled last April that Indiana's voter ID law, considered the strictest law of its kind in the country, didn't violate the Constitution, the passage of ID laws became a big issue in Republican circles.

As a result, a wave of voter ID legislation was introduced in state legislatures prior to the 2008 election. By December 2008, more than 25 states had introduced bills to require voter ID at the polls, according to the voting rights group Project Vote.

Passing voter ID legislation is quickly becoming one of the GOP's top issues for the 2009 legislative session. Fresh into the new year, several Southern states began working to revive the laws in the 2009 legislative session -- already this year Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia have had bills introduced to create or enhance ID requirements.

A Texas Hold 'em

A GOP-backed voter ID bill passed in the Texas Senate Tuesday. The vote, which came down along party lines, paves the way for legislation that would require Texas voters to show photo identification, or two alternative forms of ID, when voting. The bill will face a much tougher time in the Texas House where Democrats hold nearly half the seats. The Senate is expected to pass the bill in a final vote Monday before sending it to the House.

The Democrats have said they plan to challenge the bill's legality in court, under the Voting Rights Act, if it passes. The VRA governs states with a history of discrimination against minorities.

Voting rights advocates have long opposed voter ID legislation, much of which requires voters to present government-issued photo identification before they cast their ballots. Voting rights advocates point out that studies have shown that such laws act as "de-facto poll taxes" and are discriminatory and burdensome, disproportionately impacting the indigent, elderly, students, women, people with disabilities, low income people and minorities. Several of these ID laws have prompted lawsuits from voting rights advocates.

While pushing the bill through the Senate, Republicans argued that the threat of voter fraud in Texas justified the new requirement. Democrats contended that there has been no evidence of voter fraud in Texas and warned, as many in the voting rights community have, that requiring a photo ID will discourage voting by some of the state's most vulnerable residents. In short, Democrats charge that voter ID legislation is simply a way for Republicans to suppress Democratic voters, particularly minorities and the poor.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, leader of the Texas Senate Democrats, told the Associated Press that the measure is designed to shave about 3 to 4 percentage points off of Democratic vote totals in Texas just as the party begins to improve its statewide performance. Van de Putte cited a study indicating that about 1 million of the state's 13.5 million registered voters lack a photo ID and would be harmed by the proposal. "This is not about voter fraud. There is no voter fraud. This is about voter suppression" she told the AP.

Walking out in South Carolina

In late February the South Carolina House of Representatives passed a measure that would require all voters in the state to present a photo ID at the polls before being allowed to vote. When it became clear the bill would pass, about 30 members of South Carolina's legislative Black Caucus and several other state House Democrats staged a walkout, equating the bill to segregation-era efforts to disenfranchise black voters.

Voting rights advocates pointed out that around 700,000 of South Carolina's registered voters do not have a state-issued photo ID. Most of these voters are poor or elderly, and many are African American. Voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers in South Carolina have charged that the law will create a burden that will discourage voter turnout. And like Texas, voting rights advocates point out, there were no official reports of voter fraud during the 2008 general election.

The South Carolina NAACP said it will consider legal action if the bill passes the Senate. Similarly to Texas, South Carolina will have to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act to make any final changes to its voting processes.

The legislation now goes to the state Senate.

Georgia on My Mind

During the past couple of years, Georgia has been mired in voting rights' controversies. Voter ID has been a contentious issue in the state ever since the Republican-led state legislature adopted a law in 2005 requiring Georgians to present a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot in person. Since then the state has faced several lawsuits over the constitutionality of the law.

In 2005 a federal judge first blocked the law saying it amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax, but the ruling was overturned in 2007. Even though the law was in effect for the November general election, it still faced challenges from voting rights advocates. In December 2008, civil rights lawyers asked an appeals panel to revive the lawsuit against the legislation, hoping to challenge the the 2007 decision by a federal judge that dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the voting rights law didn't impose a significant burden on the right to vote. But the appeals panel rejected the challenge against Georgia's government-issued photo ID this past January.

Georgia lawmakers have also been leading the second wave of voter ID restrictions. There have been several proof-of-citizenship bills introduced in Georgia so far this session, and one of the bills passed last week in the Georgia Senate. The bill, which requires proof of U.S. citizenship -- birth certificates, passports, naturalization document or driver's license -- when first registering to vote, will now move to the Georgia House.

Voting rights advocates argue that citizenship requirements have the potential to affect millions of Americans, including low-income and women voters. According to research from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law: 13 million individuals do not have ready access to documentation, including passports, naturalization papers, or birth certificates; 12 percent of citizens earning less thatn $25,000 per year do not have ready access to documentation; and less than half (48%) of voting age women with ready access to citizenship documents have them with current, legal name.

If the proof-of-citizenship measure becomes law, Georgia would become the second state in the nation, behind Arizona, to require prospective voters to show they are U.S. citizens to register.

Voting rights advocates say that the law would violate the National Voter Registration Act and create a poll tax by forcing people who are missing their birth certificates or naturalization papers to have to pay money to attain new ones, placing yet another hurdle between poor, elderly and minority voters and the ballot box. Georgia, like Texas and South Carolina, will have to clear election changes with the DOJ under the Voting Rights Act.

"These citizenship bills are even more devastating than the ID bills; they hit a lot more people," Neil Bradley, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, told the AP.

Voter Fraud vs. Voter Suppression

Voting rights advocates have long argued that voter fraud is statistically insignificant to the point of being nonexistent. In a 2007 report examining 12 states (including Texas), the Brennan Center found voter fraud to be "very rare." They found "little evidence of significant fraud" or "any indication that fraud is more than a minor problem." Indeed, the Brennan Center found that the "only misconduct that photo ID addresses is the kind of voter fraud that happens as infrequently as death by lightning."

That was made abundantly clear in Texas last year, after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott spent two years on a whopping $1.4 million investigating voter fraud, finding no cases of actual, intentional fraud.

Instead, voting rights advocates point out that what has been proven time and time again, is that the risk of voter disenfranchisement stemming from voter ID is much more real that any voter fraud the laws are meant to prevent.

A 2006 study by the Brennan Center found as many as 10 percent of eligible voters do not have a driver's license or state-issued non-driver's identification card. It also found that 18% of citizens 65 and over, 25% of African American citizens, and 15% of voters earning under $35,000/year don't have government-issued photo identification. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that among African-Americans in Wisconsin, only 45 percent of males and 51 percent of females had a valid driver's license; the study also found that only 22 percent of black men age 18-24 had a valid driver's license.

In light of statistics like these, voting rights advocates point out that election reform should not center around nonexistent voter fraud, but instead laws that tackle voter suppression should be at the heart of any election reform agenda.

Although the 2008 presidential election was deemed a success by many in terms of voting rights, it still shone a light on many of the voting rights barriers that remain in place for millions of people. Indeed, restrictive voter ID laws played a major role in preventing eligible voters from casting a vote.

As many as 7 million Americans who were registered to vote tried to cast ballots in the 2008 elections, but were either discouraged or unable to do so, according to a new MIT study released this week in the Senate Rules committee. Of that 7 million, almost two million to four million registered voters -- or 1 percent to 2 percent of the eligible electorate -- were "discouraged" from voting due to administrative hassles like voter identification requirements, the study found.

What next?

Despite the alarming statistics of voter suppression caused by voter ID laws, it appears campaigns for restrictive photo ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements will remain at the top of the GOP's to-do list this year.

Currently, only seven states in the United States require a photo ID to vote: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota. But several states in the South, including Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina, may see more action in the coming months.

Yet, in the past couple of months there have been some set backs for conservative lawmakers. A bill requiring most Mississippians to show identification to vote passed in the Mississippi House last month, but died in the state Senate last week. Despite a failed attempt to resurrect the bill in the state House this week, state GOP leadership isn't giving up. Republicans will be kicking off a statewide voter ID petition initiative next month to try and register 90,000 Mississippians to petition a referendum on requiring government-issued voter ID before voting, reports the Desoto Times Tribune.

In Alabama last month, a legislative panel voted to delay a final vote on a proposed voter ID law, and most lawmakers do not expect the bill to get much support this session. In Arkansas a bill that would require voter ID bill died in the state House committee Friday morning.

Tennessee on the other hand looks like it may see some traction on its bill. A voter ID bill is advancing in the state legislature -- it passed the Tennessee Senate last week and a companion bill has been assigned to a subcommittee in the state House.

The original March 13 Facing South article can be found here.

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