16 January 2013
States across America considered legislation in their most recent sessions that would change voting and voter registration requirements. Some of these bills expanded registration periods and access to absentee ballots. More often, however, lawmakers focused on legislation requiring voters to provide some form of photo identification before casting their ballots.
This is part of a broader, decade-long trend toward Voter ID laws across the nation. The National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that researches and assists state lawmakers, reports that 46 states have considered nearly 1,000 Voter ID bills since 2001. To date, 24 of those states have decided to pass major Voter ID bills.
This number includes 3 states that passed photo ID laws last session: Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire (the latter after overriding a governor’s veto). The new Pennsylvania and New Hampshire laws both amended previous law to limit the kinds of identification acceptable at the polls.
Virginia’s Voter ID law, on the other hand, amended previous law to expand the list of acceptable identification. It also repeals the process of signing an affidavit in lieu of producing identification. Instead, Virginia has moved to a system in which voters without proper ID can vote via a provisional ballot as long as they are able to later produce valid identification.
Several states considered amending their constitutions to allow Voter ID requirements, though only Minnesota s proposed amendment will go before voters this November, despite the governor’s disapproval.
The issue is a fairly contentious one, with most Voter ID bills passing along party lines – Republicans generally for and Democrats generally against. Supporters say that such measures are a commonsense way to combat voter impersonation fraud, while opponents say that these laws will be burdensome on poor, elderly, and disabled populations and that voter impersonation fraud rarely happens.
Michigan seems to be a partial outlier in this partisan debate. Over the past two years, five Democratic governors have vetoed Voter ID bills passed by Republican legislatures. Rick Snyder of Michigan is the first Republican governor to do the same, though he also approved a bill to require Voter ID for absentee ballots.
The judicial branch has also had its say in the Voter ID debate. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a 6-3 decision to uphold an Indiana Voter ID law that required voters who did not bring a valid photo ID to the polls to cast provisional ballots and then produce an ID within 10 days.
Still, this ruling from the high court has not stopped challenges to other Voter ID laws. In Pennsylvania, Judge Robert Simpson temporarily suspended a new Voter ID law this year after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asked him to consider whether all voters would be able to comply in time for the general election. In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court’s decision not to hear challenges to a Voter ID law until an appeals court had ruled first means the law will likely not be in effect for the 2012 election.
Additionally, some states have encountered federal opposition to their Voter ID laws. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires certain states with a history of voter discrimination to submit changes in election law to the federal government for preclearance. Federal courts recently ruled that Texas’ 2011 Voter ID law is discriminatory. They also temporarily delayed South Carolina’s law until 2013. In contrast, Voter ID laws in Virginia and New Hampshire were granted preclearance this year.
Yet, Voter ID bills are not the only election legislation that states have been considering. California and Connecticut, for instance, joined eight other states in offering Election Day registration. Both bills were passed largely along party lines, with most Democrats supporting the bill and most Republicans opposing it. Other states placed certain limits on voter registration. Wisconsin removed high schools from its list of approved voter registration locations, while Utah authorized county clerks to cancel an active voter registration if they mail out an address verification letter and receive no response.
In general, there has been significant movement recently on Voter ID bills in state legislatures. Despite the fact that these bills all broadly share the fact that they require voters to produce certain kinds of identification in order to vote, they each go about doing so in different ways and authorize the use of different types of ID. Some states require government-issued photo IDs, while others allow non-photo forms of identification, such as utility bills. Though the general trend has been toward limiting the kinds of identification acceptable at the polls, some states, most recently Virginia, have expanded this list. Considering that states have been continuously passing and amending Voter ID laws over most of the past decade, it would not be surprising if states continue to debate this issue in upcoming sessions. And if that is the case, expect such debates to be both partisan and contentious.
Michael J. Gaudini is a Master of Public Affairs candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He is currently interning with Project Vote Smart.