Politics and Media Frenzy Feed Voter ID Battles; Efforts to Make Voting More Accessible Go Under Ra

Cross posted at Project Vote’s Voting Matters Blog

By Erin Ferns

Although there are other election reforms – good and bad – that deserve the spotlight, voter ID remains a hot button issue for legislators and the media, primarily in Southern states. These battles are drawing as much attention for their political divisiveness as for the unfair burden they put on voters.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case on the oft-challenged Georgia voter ID law, thereby upholding a three judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the “state’s voter ID law is final,” according to the Associated Press. The high court’s decision to not hear the case comes as no surprise to voting rights advocates, considering its 2008 ruling to uphold another strict ID law in Indiana, the AP reports. The state is currently being scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Justice for its discriminatory voter list maintenance procedure, which haphazardly checked for voters’ citizenship, and may also be under review for the recent passage of a controversial bill requiring all voter applicants to present proof of citizenship before being registered to vote.

Still, the fight to amend or abolish Georgia’s strict law does not appear to be over. The AP reports that yet another lawsuit over the law is still in state courts. Additionally, “the next step for voter ID opponents would be legislative, [Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU voting rights project] McDonald said, but that would have to take place in Congress.”

“I don’t think the state of Georgia … will change its mind,” he said. One of the state’s biggest supporters of its controversial election laws–which are frequently challenged for being discriminatory if not disenfranchising–is Secretary of State Karen Handel, who also plans to run for governor in 2010.

Two state legislatures with highly publicized voter ID battles this session have come to an explosive but inconclusive ending that only points to another spirited round in the near future. Last week, a Texas voter ID bill and political games were blamed for stalling any significant bill movement in the legislature. After failing to pass a similar law in the past, the Republican-controlled Senate “changed long-standing Senate rules on the second day of the session to guarantee the passing of a voter ID bill on their side of the Capitol,” the San Antonio Express-News reported. In the last week of the legislative session, House Democrats kept the bill from reaching the House floor, letting it die along with other unrelated bills.

House Speaker Joe Straus lamented in March that such issues “suck all the political oxygen out of a session” and that they “shouldn’t dominate the legislative session when we have a very challenging economy, a long-term budget problem in Texas that’s going to be completely ignored for two more years.”

“Both sides are taking a really hard position and exaggerating it,” said Straus. “Democrats exaggerate the danger of a more modest bill, and Republicans exaggerate the depth of the problem that needs to be addressed.”

On Tuesday, Republican Governor Rick Perry announced that the state will hold a special session, though he did not indicate when it would be or whether the voter ID fight may be rehashed, according the Dallas Morning News. Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurt are among the state’s biggest voter ID supporters. They “are running in next spring’s GOP primary – and Voter ID remains one of those red-meat issues for hard-core Republicans,” according to the Express-News.

Nor does the battle appear to be over in another state with a widely publicized voter ID fight this session. Mississippi Senator Joey Fillingane (R-Sumrall) declared “victory” when a judge declined to make a judgment on how signatures should be collected to put a voter ID initiative on the ballot, according to the Associated Press. The question was if the signatures should come from the five former House districts, or the current four. Although the legislature failed to pass any of the nine voter ID bills introduced this year, Fillingane, along with voter ID advocates, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Attorney General Jim Hood agreed that signatures should come from the five former House districts.

“Voter ID has been a hot-button issue at the Capitol for more than a decade. Hosemann and other supporters say it can prevent fraud at the polls,” the AP reported. “Opponents say there’s little evidence of people voting under the names of others. They also believe an ID requirement could diminish turnout among older black voters who still recall the Jim Crow era poll taxes and literacy tests.”

Fillingane said he has collected 10,000 signatures in support of a constitutional amendment for a strict voter ID law. He needs a total of 90,000 to get the proposal on the statewide ballot.

Although not as hyped Texas and Mississippi, some active state legislatures have quietly moved bills relating to photo ID requirements, both restrictive and expansive, in the last week.

A photo ID bill passed the Rhode Island House last week, though it is unclear that its passage through one chamber indicates any viability. A similar photo ID bill recently failed in a Tennessee House subcommittee after passing the Senate, according to the Associated Press.

Although not nearly as popular as bills to enact photo ID, at least two of the eight states with photo ID laws have introduced legislation to expand the list of acceptable voter ID in order to make voting more accessible for voters who lack the necessary ID. These states include Arizona and Indiana. While Indiana adjourned in May without passing any significant election bills, Arizona recently moved identical bills, HB 2627 and SB 1344 to expand the state required voter ID list to include Military IDs, U.S. passports, and driver’s licenses with outdated addresses.

The House bill was adopted by the House on Tuesday and the Senate bill is currently in both the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committees.

To monitor Arizona’s SB 1344 and other voter ID bills, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.

Comments are closed.