Fresh off commanding electoral victories in November, Republican majorities in many state legislatures want to require voters to show photo identification at the polls, a move Democrats say is cynically designed to help the GOP during the next election cycle.
Voter identification laws have been a demarcation line between Democrats and Republicans for years. Democrats claim the measures disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic but may not have appropriate photo ID. Republicans say the laws are necessary to prevent fraud, particularly when important statewide contests — such as the 2008 election for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota — can be decided by just hundreds of votes.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's photo ID law in 2008, providing a legal framework for other states to pass their own versions. But while only a few states followed Indiana's lead after the ruling, the movement is gaining much more momentum now that Republicans have taken control or consolidated their power in dozens of statehouses.
Eight states now have photo ID laws in place. More than 30 others, many of them with new GOP majorities, are considering legislation this year to create or expand photo ID requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. If approved, the new voting rules would take effect in time for next year's presidential election, raising the stakes for both political parties as President Obama seeks a second term.
Kansas and Texas are already well on their way to approving new photo ID bills, and the legislative success of both can be traced directly to the results of the 2010 elections.
Kansas voters elected conservative Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped create Arizona's controversial immigration law before turning his attention to photo ID as he campaigned for the top elections job in Kansas. The photo ID legislation favored by Kobach has cleared both chambers in the GOP-led Legislature and is now awaiting the signature of Sam Brownback, the Republican governor who replaced Democrat Mark Parkinson this year.
In Texas, where the GOP has had majorities in the legislature for years, Republicans now have a supermajority in the House of Representatives, allowing them to dispatch Democratic opposition with ease. Two years ago, during the last regular meeting of the Legislature, House Democrats used a legislative stalling tactic to kill a photo ID bill in the closing days of the session. This year, it has cleared both the House and Senate, and the two versions are being reconciled in a conference committee before the legislation makes its way to Governor Rick Perry.
Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina are other states where the GOP won new legislative or gubernatorial seats and where photo ID plans soon could become law. So are classic battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where such efforts would have been long shots at best until the Republicans' dramatic electoral successes last year.
"The elections in November made a huge difference on this issue," says Tova Wang, senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based advocacy organization that works to defeat photo ID proposals. "From a geographic perspective, it's unlike anything we've seen in years…It's moving quickly and seriously in so many places."
Both political parties regularly engage in finger-pointing over what will or will not happen if photo ID rules become law. But experts say both sides suffer from a lack of information.
The prospect of voter fraud is the chief reason Republicans say they support a photo ID requirement, but documented instances of such fraud are few and far between, leading Democrats to call the GOP-backed measures a "solution without a problem." The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged as much in its 6-3 ruling upholding the Indiana law, though it said that the state's interest in preventing fraud outweighs other considerations.
Democrats contend that new rules requiring voters to show photo ID will lead tens of thousands of their constituents to be turned aside at the polls. Several studies have indeed shown that minorities and the poor and elderly are less likely than others to carry valid identification, but it is difficult to say with certainty that photo ID laws cause disenfranchisement. Minority participation soared in the 2008 presidential election, including in Indiana and other states that had photo ID requirements in place. Of course, the presence of President Obama on the ticket drove much of that increase.
One important election official, Secretary of State Jon Husted of Ohio, is trying to stake out a middle position. He believes both Democrats and his own Republican Party make "extreme points" to further their arguments for or against photo ID. Husted opposes a photo ID bill being pushed by conservative lawmakers in Ohio and is instead seeking a compromise version that would allow for voters' identities to be verified through a social security number or other means short of requiring a photo ID.
Despite the risk of irritating his own party over a highly partisan issue, Husted says his main interest is finding a consensus approach before the nation's attention turns to his state during the presidential campaign, as it does every four years. "The only pressure that I feel is to run a good election that people across the political spectrum believe was done fairly," Husted says. "I want this (presidential) election to be about the candidates and their ideas and not the process by which they are elected."
Beyond questions of voter fraud and disenfranchisement, one concern that could slow passage of photo ID laws this year is cost. Even in states where Republicans want to pass the legislation on principle, they would have to find a way to pay for the new rules, which must include the issuance of free photo IDs for those who may not possess them. The Supreme Court has ruled that the free IDs have to be available in order for the laws not to amount to a poll tax.
In two states that have had photo ID laws in place for several years, Georgia and Indiana, the cost of implementation has been $1.6 million and $10 million, respectively, experts in both states recently told Electionline , which, like Stateline , is a publication of the Pew Center on the States.
This year, at least 14 states with pending photo ID legislation have attached cost estimates to their bills, and the estimated costs range from "negligible" in some states to nearly $10 million in Missouri over two years, Electionline noted.
But other costs may not be included in such tallies, says Wang, the Demos analyst. In many states, Wang predicts, new photo ID legislation is likely to be followed by lawsuits, which present an additional burden to the taxpayer.