By Mike Lillis
House Democrats on Tuesday introduced legislation that would essentially nullify many of the state-based voter ID requirements that Republican legislatures have enacted in the name of fighting election fraud.
While supporters of those requirements argue they're needed to ensure the integrity of elections, critics, including a long list of congressional Democrats, contend the changes are actually built to discourage seniors, minorities and other vulnerable populations from voting at all.
Under the bill authored by Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), voters in states with government ID requirements could sign an affidavit attesting to their identity in lieu of showing the mandated documents.
The proposal is modeled on the system used in Larsen's home state of Washington, where all ballots are cast by mail and all voters sign an affidavit certifying they are who they say they are. Strict penalties, including thousands of dollars in fines and the threat of years in prison, are both appropriate and sufficient for preventing fraud, Larsen said.
"These laws are designed, in my view, to intimidate and prevent U.S. citizens from casting legitimate ballots," Larsen said Tuesday in a conference call announcing the bill. "The story of our country is one of extending the right to vote irrespective of race or gender. I don't think we should allow the U.S. to move backward to our past history of voter intimidation and suppression."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, warned that the new state voting restrictions "definitely have the potential to change the outcome of the presidential election by suppressing the votes of the elderly, poor young students and people of color."
"Intimidation is a major part of this," Cummings said. "We need to be encouraging voter participation, not discouraging it."
It's not the only Democratic effort this year to scale back tougher state voting rules. In May, a number of House Democratic leaders introduced a proposal to streamline voting by making online registration universal, allowing all eligible voters to register on Election Day, providing funds to train poll workers and requiring all federally funded universities to conduct registration drives.
That broader bill, however, did nothing to sidestep voting ID requirements -- a move the sponsors defended at the time.
"Voter ID is not a problem. Everybody that goes to vote shows some form of ID," Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said in introducing the bill. "The big problem has been the process ... you go through to get there."
The Larsen bill takes a different tack, suggesting that IDs are tougher to get than the first proposal acknowledged.
Neither Democratic bill has a chance of moving this year through the GOP-controlled House, but they do fit well with the Democrats' broad election-year message that Republicans are fighting for the wealthy while disenfranchising the lower and middle classes.
"The opportunity to vote affords the janitor in the company to have the same power on that one day -- Election Day -- as the president," Cummings said, driving home the Democrats' class-based attacks on the GOP. "I wish that this legislation was not necessary."
At issue are a slew of state laws and executive orders enacted over the last two years setting stricter standards for voters to register or cast a ballot.
Since the start of 2011, 19 states have adopted such rules, including new picture ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements, according to New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. Seventeen of those states have installed laws that could affect this year's elections, accounting for 218 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, the Brennan Center notes.
A number of those changes are currently tied up in the courts.
Last month, for instance, a federal court overturned part of a year-old Florida law empowering counties to cut back the number of early voting hours they offer. The court said the measure would discriminate against African-American voters who are known to use early voting at a much higher rate than other populations.
On Tuesday, another state voting law came under new scrutiny when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered a fresh review of the state's new photo ID requirement. Sending the case back to Commonwealth Court, the high court said the ID law can stand only if the lower court judge finds voters can get IDs easily.
The debate touches on a slew of difficult issues, including race and class, as supporters of the tougher rules wonder what's so tough about securing an ID, while critics counter that, for poor, rural and senior populations, the task can be plenty difficult.
Roughly 11 percent of U.S. citizens -- more than 21 million people -- do not own a government-issued photo ID, according to the Brennan Center.
Larsen and Cummings on Tuesday both launched another frequently heard critique of the tougher voting restrictions: the rules attack a problem -- voter fraud -- that they say doesn't exist in any significant numbers.
"If we're going to take up legislation based on how often things happen, we should take up a bill against shark attacks or exploding toilets," Larsen quipped, "because shark attacks and exploding toilets both outnumber the cases of even alleged voter fraud."