Michigan to Ask for Photo ID for First Time in Tuesday's Election

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope knows some voters are going to be surprised Tuesday when a poll worker asks them for a photo ID.

After all, it will be the first time Michigan's photo ID law will be in effect since it was passed eleven years ago. To get a ballot, voters will have to either show photo identification or sign a short affidavit.

About 340,000 of Michigan's 7.18 million registered voters don't have a driver's license or state ID card, according to state officials.

But Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said other forms of photo ID also will be acceptable. Those include a U.S. passport, military photo ID, student photo ID from a high school or an accredited college, tribal photo ID, photo IDs issued by the federal or state governments and drivers licenses or personal identification cards issued by other states.

If they don't have a photo ID — or don't have it with them — voters can sign a short statement listing their name and address and swearing they are who they say they are.

"No one should be disenfranchised," said state Elections Director Chris Thomas. By signing the affidavit, "you get the same ballot everyone else does."

The change makes Michigan one of three states — along with Louisiana and South Dakota — that request voters show photo ID but allow those without one to get regular ballots if they sign affidavits swearing to their identity. Hawaii also requires a photo ID, but will give voters ballots if their names, addresses and dates of birth match voting records.

Georgia, Florida and Indiana allow voters to mark only provisional ballots if they don't have a photo ID, and those votes aren't counted if election clerks find a reason they should be invalidated.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last month to decide if Indiana's law is legal. The Democratic chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, earlier this week co-sponsored a bill introduced by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison that would ban photo IDs from being required in federal elections.

Michigan has had a photo ID requirement on the books since 1996, but the law was ignored because Democrat Frank Kelley, then the state attorney general, ruled that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to vote.

That changed this summer, when the five Republicans on the seven-member Michigan Supreme Court ruled the law is constitutional.

The move worries groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, which have argued against it.

"We believe that photo ID is unconstitutional as a burden on voting," said Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, general counsel to the Detroit NAACP. "All it is is a vehicle to suppress the black vote."

Missouri's photo ID law was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court when justices there ruled the requirement placed too great of a burden on the right to vote.

But Michigan elections officials say Michigan's law allows voters to get a ballot by signing an affidavit, so the photo ID requirement isn't a burden. Voters who want a photo ID can get a state identification card for $10, or for free if they are 65 or older, blind or have lost their driving privileges because of a physical or mental condition.

Land and many other Republicans also say the photo ID requirement will help guard against fraud. They note that a photo ID is required for a wide variety of other transactions.

But Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, says in-person voting fraud isn't much of an issue in Michigan.

"The only area there was any evidence of voter fraud was in absentee ballots. But there's no requirement for a photo ID in absentee voting," he said.

The Lansing city clerk said he's more worried about discouraging voters than voter fraud.

"A bigger problem we have is low voter turnout," which could be worsened by the photo ID requirement, Swope said. "I don't find it helpful."

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey has put up billboards telling people to bring their photo ID or to sign the affidavit when they go to the polls. Groups including the Detroit NAACP plan to monitor election sites on Tuesday to make sure all voters are able to cast ballots.

Steinberg said the ACLU and NAACP have worked with Thomas to make sure voters know they don't have to have a photo ID to get a ballot, and to allow those who can't swear in an affidavit for religious reasons — such as Quakers, Mennonites or members of Jehovah's Witness — to cross out the word "swear" and write in the word "affirm."

An arrangement also has been worked out for women who wear coverings that hide their faces. Women in such head coverings will be taken by a female poll worker to a private room or area where they can show enough of their face to be checked against their ID.

Steinberg said he expects few hitches on Tuesday because relatively few voters will go to the polls when only local elections are on the ballot.

But he and others who oppose the law worry that, in the 2008 presidential election, those who want to suppress the vote — especially among low-income and minority voters — might try to mislead people into thinking they can't vote without a photo ID.

Hollowell said he's also concerned that voters who sign affidavits will have their votes challenged by poll watchers.

"We think that this law will heighten the opportunities for harassment of voters," he said. "Michigan, frankly, has a sorry history in that regard."

Swope said he just hopes any voters unhappy with the new requirement don't take it out on poll workers.

"My election inspectors work a long day. I don't need them to be getting irate voters directing anger at them when it's really not their fault, it's not my fault, it's now the law in Michigan," he said.