RALEIGH, N.C. – Empowered by last year's elections, Republican leaders in about half the states are pushing to require voters to show photo ID at the polls despite little evidence of fraud and already-substantial punishments for those who vote illegally.
Democrats claim the moves will disenfranchise poor and minority voters — many of whom traditionally vote for their candidates. The measures will also increase spending and oversight in some states even as Republicans are focused on cutting budgets and decreasing regulations.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, said he believes his state's proposed photo ID law will increase citizen confidence in the process and combat fraud that could be going undetected.
"I can't figure out who it would disenfranchise," Hargett said. "The only people I can think it disenfranchises is those people who might be voting illegally."
Hargett said the measure currently moving through Tennessee's legislature — now controlled by Republicans — would accommodate people who don't have IDs by having them sign oaths of identity, which provide more prominent warning to potential fakers than the standard name-signing.
Party leaders advanced several ID proposals this week with successful votes in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Ohio and Texas.
About half of states are considering measures to create or strengthen ID requirements this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many are considering stringent controls that would mirror laws in Georgia and Indiana, which require voters who don't have photo ID at the polls to return to election offices within days and produce that kind of identification in order to get their votes counted.
In the South, the issue comes with a burden of history for black residents who recall past barriers to voting such as violence, literacy tests and other methods. The Voting Rights Act still requires a number of Southern states to get Justice Department approval of redistricting efforts to ensure that minorities' voting strength is upheld.
William Barber, president of North Carolina's chapter of the NAACP, said the photo ID measure amounts to "nothing but nuanced, 21st Century Jim Crow."
Henry Frye recalled the literacy test he failed in 1956, after he'd returned from serving in the Air Force and tried to register to vote. One of the questions asked him to name a U.S. president — the 13th, if he remembers correctly.
Frye, who eventually became North Carolina's first black Supreme Court justice, spent 14 years as a lawmaker in the General Assembly and focused much of his time trying to make it easier for people to register and vote. He said the photo ID measure appears to be a first step back in the wrong direction.
"I think we need to do what we can to encourage voting rather than discourage voting," Frye said.
Elections officials in North Carolina said most of the voting fraud allegations they investigate turn out to be unfounded. Over the past five years, the state has referred about 350 cases to district attorneys for investigation, mostly in cases of felons who cast a ballot without first getting their voting rights restored. There are more than six million registered voters in the state.
States already have ways to check the identity of voters when they register and when they go to cast a ballot. North Carolina's current law requires residents to provide documents proving their name and address in order to register to vote. Those who register improperly can be charged with a felony.
At the polls, North Carolina voters must declare their valid name and address in order to get their ballot. Impersonating another registered voter is also a felony, as is voting more than once in an election.
In Georgia, which has had a strict voter ID law on the books for years, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp said he's not aware of anyone caught committing fraud. He argues that the rules help prevent people who try to file improper votes from having them counted.
Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp said he's not aware of anyone caught committing fraud because of the law but argued that it has helped make elections more secure.
Kemp said about two-thirds of people who cast provisional ballots because of missing photo IDs — there were about 1,200 during the 2008 presidential election — do not return to election offices. He suspects those people either knew the outcome of the election and didn't feel the need to confirm their vote, or they were trying to commit fraud. He doesn't see any signs that minorities or any other people are participating less because of the law.
"I don't think it's created any kind of burden for our citizens," Kemp said.
Estimated costs vary for states to implement the changes and provide picture IDs for those who don't already have a driver's license or other qualifying identification. North Carolina estimates a cost of more than $3 million in the first year and about $400,000 each year going forward. Missouri estimates that a proposal in that state could also cost millions. Texas would spend $2 million in the coming year to implement the law there.
Tennessee's law wouldn't require the state to provide IDs, so Hargett believes the cost would be minimal.
Many of the state efforts are coming due to increased GOP influence, as Republicans now control 25 state legislatures and 29 governor's offices. In Kansas, for example, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a photo ID bill three years ago but then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed it. The state's new Republican governor, Sam Brownback, supports the photo ID rules, which are advancing through the Legislature now.
South Carolina is moving forward to require photo IDs, strengthening a law which already requires voters to show either driver's licenses, voter registration cards or DMV-issued ID cards. The topic has been racially divisive in Mississippi for years and will now be on the ballot as an initiative after a petition authored by a Republican lawmaker got enough signatures. The new Republican majority in the Alabama Legislature is hoping to push a photo ID law through after years of discussing it.
"I think most citizens think it's common sense," Kemp said. "I think it's important for people, not only from a fraud perspective, but to make sure that people have confidence in the system."