A License to Vote? GOP Lawmakers Push Voter IDs

Residents of Virginia and Arkansas may be getting carded at places other than nightclubs come 2014.

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Larry Downing / REUTERS

An early voter is seen at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia.

Residents of Virginia and Arkansas may be getting carded at places other than nightclubs come 2014. Both states have passed stricter election laws that require voters to show approved photo ID before they can cast their ballots. On Monday, the Republican-controlled Arkansas legislature overrode a veto from Democratic governor Mike Beebe, who called the law “an expensive solution in search of a problem.” Republican governor Bob McDonnell signed Virginia’s bill into law on March 26.

Both laws are part of the “endless partisan cycle of fights over the election rules,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California at Irvine. The classic conservative argument is that such laws are needed to combat voter fraud. The classic liberal retort is that voter fraud is a red herring and such laws are really attempts to suppress voters who lean Democratic—because voting blocs like the young, elderly and minorities disproportionately lack photo ID.

Hasen, author of The Voting Wars, says that voter fraud is a small problem but that impersonation voter fraud—the type such laws protect against—is “virtually non-existent.” A more powerful reason that Republicans and Democrats continually engage in these bouts over the rules, he says, is that both sides can use them to excite their bases: GOP supporters get riled up about the prospect of Democrats stealing elections and liberals get fired up about the prospect of Republicans trying to suppress them. Both new laws require the states provide free IDs to voters who lack them.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states currently ask voters to flash photo ID when they show up to the polls. (The NCSL does not yet count Arkansas or Virginia in that tally because the laws aren’t set to go into effect until 2014.) Of those, four are what they dub “strict,” meaning that if voters don’t show their photo ID on the day of the election, they have to take an additional step—like visiting an election official the next day with proper ID—for their vote to be counted. The “non-strict” states have easier recourse, says NCSL’s Jennie Bowser, meaning that a voter without photo ID might be able to have someone vouch for them on the spot or sign an affidavit swearing to their identity: no second trip required.

Virginia and other states like Texas that have already passed more restrictive voter ID laws have an extra hurdle to clear before the laws can go into effect. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is being reviewed and may be struck down by the Supreme Court, requires that states, counties and townships with a history of racial discrimination get approval from the Department of Justice before making changes to their voting laws. Hasen says “smart money” is on Section 5 soon being a thing of the past.

Bowser notes that, according to their tallies of bills and laws, more than 15 states could have stricter ID requirements heading into the 2016 elections—though changes in all those states are unlikely. Hasen predicts more states will be asking for photo ID when voters head out to choose the next President, but he says those measures won’t affect elections nearly as much as rules about voter registration or how well the polls are run. After the long lines that discouraged thousands of potential voters in 2012, Obama vowed to address the problems in his most recent State of the Union address. And to that end, he created a bipartisan commission on March 28 to study how to ease voter access.