Politics 2012: Picture proving you are who you say you are at the polling place

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  June 10, 2012 at 4:01 AM
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Stricter voter identification measures supporters say fight fraud and opponents counter disenfranchise groups of voters are being detoured into the U.S. court system, possibly keeping them from going into effect or being considered before Election Day.

Restrictions on early voting, new photo ID requirements and efforts to purge voter lists of non-citizens have been met with opposition from the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and judges who blocked the provisions.

"There has been a real push-back by the courts to these widespread efforts to restrict the vote," Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, told The Washington Post. "If those seeking to suppress the vote won round 1, round 2 seems to be going to the voters."

Welcome to "the voting war," University of California-Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

"Since the 2000 election, people [have] realized that the rules of the game mattered a great deal and there's been a lot of jockeying to change those rules," Hasen said.

In the battleground state of Florida, a federal judge nixed a new state law that requires groups registering voters submit registration cards within 48 hours or face fines, saying the mandate was onerous.

The Justice Department has challenged an effort by Florida's Republican secretary of state to remove non-citizens from voter registration lists, arguing it is illegal to do so this close to an election.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has defended the list purge, telling WNDB, Daytona Beach, state election officials are "making sure only those individuals who have the right to vote … are voting."

In a letter to the Justice Department, Secretary of State Ken Detzner said Florida hasn't violated any federal voting laws and didn't indicate state officials would cease their list purging -- setting up another possible showdown with the feds.

In Minnesota, state Supreme Court justices promised swift justice on a challenge to a constitutional amendment on voter ID voters will consider in November.

The court set oral arguments for mid-July, allowing it time to order changes to the ballot question before the election if necessary, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

Opponents have asked the court to strike the question, which would require voters to get a government-approved photo ID before voting, saying the measure's current wording doesn't give full weight to the broader changes the amendment would make, such as affecting same-day registration or mail-in absentee voting, let alone the cost of issuing free state IDs to eligible voters.

Caught in a squeeze is Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, who has made no bones about his opposition to the amendment yet is being sued by amendment opponents because he is responsible for administering the election ballot. He's also taken heat from amendment supporters who say Ritchie is obligated to stay neutral.

Nationally, the League of Women Voters is opposed to changing voter laws, with national President Elisabeth MacNamara calling the spate of restrictions placed on voters an assault "that is one of the greatest self-inflicted threats to our democracy in our lifetimes."

"The right to vote is under attack in too many states across the country," MacNamara said on the league's Web site. "We believe every eligible citizen should be able to register to vote. Every voter should be able to cast a ballot.

The league favors the Voter Empowerment Act, saying the measure would take key steps to protect voters to ensure "all eligible citizens have their votes counted."

The act, sponsored by civil rights lion Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and at least 130 co-sponsors, was designed to modernize the electoral system by providing improved access to the ballot, among other things, a fact sheet on the bill said.

The legislation also will "address the unprecedented efforts to turn back the clock and erect barriers to voting for military, disabled, minority, young, elderly and low-income Americans," the information guide said.

The bill was introduced May 17 and referred to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Laws restricting a person's ability to vote "threaten to silence the voices least heard and rarely listened to in this country -- the poor, the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, the young and persons with disabilities," MacNamara said. "It is important for members of Congress to stand up against assaults on our voting rights."

Last year, of the 34 states that introduced new voter ID measures, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Wisconsin passed them, National Council of State Legislatures data indicate. Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas passed legislation that strengthened existing voter ID laws to require a photo ID. Governors in five states vetoed such legislation.

Since the 2011 legislative session, two state judges in Wisconsin ruled that state's voter ID law unconstitutional and a Missouri court tossed a ballot initiative that would have allowed voters to decide whether photo IDs should be required.

The Justice Department has challenged voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas under a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires specific states or counties with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before changing their voting laws.

Opponents say the Texas law is unfair because, among other things, it allows gun permits as identification but not student IDs.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called Justice's stance wrong-headed and "obviously political," the Post said.

"In Texas we have been involved in cases where votes have been cast for dead people, alive people have voted twice and foreign nationals have been allowed to vote illegally," said Abbott, whose office has racked up convictions in 50 voter fraud cases in the past eight years. "It is the state's right to protect the integrity of the ballot box."

The Texas trial and a trial challenging Pennsylvania's voter ID law begin in July.

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