States Move to Enact Voter Identification Laws

The high-profile voter identification debates in Georgia and Arizona are only the beginning of a larger trend. More state legislatures are pushing strict voter identification requirements, to the dismay of civil rights groups.

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Inside a Georgia courthouse today, lawyers will debate one of the state's voting rules. It's a law that requires a voter ID, the kind of rule that more states are considering in this election year.

The ID rule is intended to prevent voter fraud, though opponents say what it really prevents is voting. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Todd Rokita is Indiana's Secretary of State. He says for the last 40 years or more, the U.S. has made the ballot more accessible with laws like the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Mr. TODD ROKITA (Secretary of State, State of Indiana): And all that's good. But if you don't balance that accessibility with some measures of integrity, then the voter won't believe they have a valid process, that they're participating in a valid process. And the solution in the voter's mind to that is don't participate.

SHAPIRO: Rokita says requiring people to show a government issued photo ID when they vote prevents fraud, and he believes the more people feel confident in an election's integrity the more people will come to the polls.

John Greenbaum believes voter ID requirements have the opposite effect. He's director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, and he sees voter ID laws as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the poor minority vote.

Mr. JOHN GREENBAUM (Director of Voting Rights Project, Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law): I think, on a very surface level, government issued photo ID sounds reasonable until you start looking at who is effected, how many people are effected, and how difficult it is for those people to participate in a political process that creates more hurdles.

SHAPIRO: Greenbaum notes that in Georgia, one in seven voters do not have a government issued photo ID. But when you look at elderly black voters in Georgia, that number rises to one in three.

Mr. GREENBAUM: I think some people have made a political calculation that if they can prevent certain types of voters from being able to vote, that it's in their best interest.

SHAPIRO: Advocates of voter ID say if the identification is free and widely available, then there's no good reason for anyone to object.

Thor Hurn is counsel to the American Center for Voting Rights, which supports voter ID laws.

Mr. THOR HURN (Director, American Center for Voting Rights): We need to make sure that the person casting the ballot is, in fact, the person legally entitled to do so. And we also need to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to obtain the ID that's required to participate in the election process.

SHAPIRO: But even if the ID itself is free, Dan Corman(ph) says the process of getting it can be expensive. Corman is an attorney with AARP, which is fighting voter ID laws in Arizona and Georgia.

Mr. DAN CORMAN (Attorney, AARP): In Georgia and other states, the documents you need to get that free ID sometimes cost an awful lot.

SHAPIRO: You might have to travel out of state or pay a fee to get a birth certificate. And Corman believes that's enough to discourage someone from voting.

This debate is happening in many states, and what makes all of the arguments a little surreal is that there's no good scientific data to support either side.

Doug Chapin directs the nonpartisan Web site ElectionLine.org.

Mr. DOUG CHAPIN (Director, ElectionLine.org): We don't have a lot of empirical data on voter fraud across the country.

SHAPIRO: So voter ID advocates can't demonstrate a fraud problem that has to be solved. And when opponents say the policies keep voters away from the polls, they run into the same problem.

Mr. CHAPIN: In Indiana, plaintiffs made the allegation that voters didn't have access to those IDs, but were unable to produce any data to back that up. So just like we have very little data on whether or not fraud exists, we're still very much at the first step of finding out how many people don't have the required IDs.

SHAPIRO: Chapin says voter ID debates across the country almost always follow party lines. Republicans support, Democrats oppose. People may see that in cynical terms.

Mr. CHAPIN: That both sides are trying to protect their bases. But really, I think it has more to do with philosophical differences, that Republicans generally worry more about the integrity of the process, whereas Democrats generally worry more about access of individuals to the process.

SHAPIRO: And voter I.D. laws cut right to the heart of those two conflicting concerns.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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