Suddenly, the Voter ID Debate is Unpredictable


Originally appeared in the August 18, 2011 electionlineWeekly

[Image courtesy of Hispanically Speaking News]

Over the last several years, the debate about voter ID, especially requirements that voters show photo identification as a condition of casting a ballot, has become so predictable as to seem almost routine.

ID proponents – usually Republicans – argue that the spectre of voter fraud demands safeguards like ID to protect the sanctity of the ballot box, while opponents – usually Democrats – see ID requirements as barriers to the polls and thus vow to fight them in the name of combating disenfranchisement.

Indeed, in recent years the best predictor of whether voter ID would advance in a given state was whether or not Republicans held legislative majorities and the governorship.

Recently, however, the headlines have brought new twists that suggest that the voter ID debate is no longer the predictable partisan storyline we have all come to know – if not love:

• In Rhode Island – a state with Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, voter ID legislation – albeit less strict than companion bills elsewhere – passed overwhelmingly and was signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) over the objection of his traditional allies in the advocacy community;

• In Ohio, voter ID was moving swiftly through the GOP-controlled state legislature on its way to the desk of Governor John Kasich, also a Republican. Then, it hit an unexpected roadblock – the opposition of GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted, a former state senator and state House Speaker, who said in a statement that “I would rather have no bill than one with a rigid photo identification provision that does little to protect against fraud and excludes legally registered voters’ ballots from counting.”

While it isn’t clear if these two examples are merely outliers, it is remarkable that they didn’t follow the usual script on voter ID. Moreover, these twists raise several questions about the future of the voter ID debate:

1. Does the passage of the Rhode Island bill mean that voter ID has reached a critical mass nationwide that legislators – especially Democrats – feel compelled to follow?

2. Does the Ohio experience suggest that GOP unanimity on ID issues is becoming more nuanced?

3. Will the specifics of ID legislation become more important? Earlier this year,‘s Sean Greene wrote about the fiscal impact of ID bills, but other issues are also starting to get traction. For example, New Hampshire State Senator Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, recently told a group of election officials he supported ID in principle but would vote to uphold a veto of a bill by Governor John Lynch (D) because it would have required voters without ID to cast a provisional ballot.

4. Will technology be a game-changer? Volusia County, FL announced recently that it will use a card reader to swipe IDs and streamline the voting process. If the system works as expected and localities can afford the cost (note: experience suggests that those are both big “ifs”), the resulting impact on the voting process could re-open or re-cast the debate in many states.

5. Or are Rhode Island and Ohio just outliers, with the parties retreating to familiar rhetorical territory as Election Day 2012 draws ever closer?

Time will tell – but if nothing else, the voter ID debate just got a little more interesting again.

2 Comments on "Suddenly, the Voter ID Debate is Unpredictable"

  1. I received the following email from a reader that I thought I’d share:

    In the August 25th issue [of electionlineWeekly], a link to an editorial blog published by the Wichita Eagle criticizes the Kansas Secretary of State for the recent passage in Kansas of the SAFE (Secure and Fair Elections) Act and his intent to persuade the legislature for an earlier date to implement the proof of citizenship provisions. The blog and reader comments repeat many of the opposing arguments voiced during the legislatures deliberations. Despite the opposition from certain very vocal groups, the SAFE Act passed by overwhelming bi-partisan majorities in both the KS House (111-11) and Senate (36-3). It is clear that the state legislature considers the SAFE Act provisions to be a reasonable and prudent step to ensure the integrity of elections in Kansas.

    As passed, the SAFE Act provides for implementation of Voter ID beginning January 1, 2012 and the implementation of proof of citizenship for voter registration beginning January 1, 2013. The January 1, 2013 date for proof of citizenship may have been chosen by the legislature, in my opinion, because that date follows the implementation of the federal REAL ID law in Kansas. Whether it does or not is really not important to me.

    Citizenship verification is fundamental to the right to vote. The US Constitution, in the 14th and 15th Amendments, guarantees the right to vote to any citizen of the United States. It is an absurdity that our electoral policies neglect to verify that those registering to vote and voting are indeed citizens.

    The continuing insistence by the opposition that the case for voter fraud must be proven completely ignores the extensive documentation of voter fraud presented by the Secretary of State during the legislatures deliberations. Why is it necessary to prove that voter fraud exists as a precondition for taking reasonable steps to prevent it? How much voter fraud must be proven to warrant prevention? For some, it would appear that relatively high levels of voter fraud should be tolerated. For others, voter fraud at any level is unacceptable.

    As it stands now, voter registration is available to anyone, citizen or not, who is willing to check yes to the citizenship question on the voter registration application. To assert that no one would deliberately lie about being a citizen is, at least, naïve or outright foolish. Heretofore, the ability of a county election officer to verify a claim of citizenship has been limited to information which might be available in other source documents researched on a case-by-case basis. For the most part, the assertion of citizenship goes unchallenged. Is there or is there not voter fraud when a county election officer can neither prove nor disprove a false assertion of citizenship?

    Whether the Secretary of State is able to convince the Kansas Legislature to establish an earlier date for the verification of citizenship is immaterial to the responsibilities of a county election officer. The fact is, Kansas County election officers will be verifying citizenship at whatever date is determined by the Kansas Legislature. And we will be doing this regardless of whether we think it is too hard, too soon or too fast. In my view, sooner is better.

    Bruce Newby | Election Commissioner – Wyandotte County

    [Thanks for the feedback, Bruce!]

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