MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
OK. Voters in some states can expect new rules when it comes to voting this year and next. Among the biggest changes are photo I.D. requirements and fewer options for early voting. They're part of a wave of laws enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures in the name of insuring honest elections. Democrats say they're a smoke screen for a GOP campaign to suppress the vote. NPR's Pam Fessler has the latest.
PAM FESSLER: The tone in the Wisconsin state Senate was far from collegial this spring as debate drew to a close on a bill to require voters to show photo ID at the polls.�
State Senator MIKE ELLIS (Republican, Wisconsin): Shut up. The question before the House is concurrence. The clerk will call the roll.
FESSLER: Democrats protested loudly, as Republican Senate President Mike Ellis cut off one of their speakers and ordered a final vote.
Senator ELLIS: You're out of order. Take your seat. Continue the roll call.
FESSLER: It was par for the course in what's turning out to be an extremely contentious and partisan debate over new voting laws. Besides Wisconsin, six other states this year alone have enacted new or tougher voter I.D. requirements. Others have placed restrictions on voter registration drive or reduced the amount of time for early voting.
Democrats and civil rights groups say it a full-scale attack on minorities, students, the poor and disabled - those most likely to be affected by the new rules.
Mr. SCOT ROSS (Executive Director, One Wisconsin Now): This is about putting up obstacles to legal voters being able to exercise the franchise. That is the scheme that the Republicans have concocted on this.
FESSLER: Scot Ross is executive director of One Wisconsin Now, an advocacy group. He says tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters lack the required I.D., and many will have difficulty traveling to motor vehicle offices to get free I.D. cards available under the law. All this, he says, to solve a problem that doesn't even exist.
Mr. ROSS: The bottom-line is in Wisconsin, there is no evidence of widespread voter impropriety happening at any point in time.
FESSLER: But supporters say, in effect, that's beside the point; that any voter fraud - even the possibility - is a concern.
FESSLER: Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, said as much when he signed the new law.
Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): Whether it's one case, a hundred cases, or a hundred thousand cases, making sure we have legislation that protects the integrity for an open fair and honest election in every single case is important.
FESSLER: And Republicans appear to be winning public opinion. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of voters back I.D. rules.
Tennessee's Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett is preparing plans to implement his state's new voter laws. They require all voters to show a photo I.D. and new voters to give proof of citizenship. He rejects claims that the changes will discourage turnout.
Secretary TRE HARGETT (Department of State, Tennessee): I think nothing could disenfranchise an eligible voter more than finding out that ineligible voters are voting.
FESSLER: Hargett cited a special election in Memphis in 2005, in which poll workers admitted faking at least three votes. Opponents say photo I.D. wouldn't have prevented that.
Doug Chapin, an election expert at the University of Minnesota, says one problem with the current debate is there's little data to back up either side. There's no evidence of widespread fraud and he says...
Professor DOUG CHAPIN (School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota): You really haven't seen, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, a whole lot of evidence that there are large numbers of people who are registered to vote, or want to register to vote and don't have the kind of I.D. that would be required.
FESSLER: Which is why Democrats and voting rights activists plan to be on high alert over the coming year, as they try to gather examples of harmed voters for potential legal challenges to many of the new state laws. Already, one civil rights group, the Advancement Project, has filed suit against a voter I.D. initiative in Missouri. The ACLU is fighting new voter restrictions in Florida and there's likely lots more to come.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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