INDIANAPOLIS – Legislation that would require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots has touched off fierce debate in three states, with opponents complaining the measures represent a return to the days of poll taxes and Jim Crow (search).
Lawmakers in Georgia and Indiana walked off the job to protest the proposals, which they say would deprive the poor, the elderly and minorities of the right to vote. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has already vetoed a similar measure and has vowed to do so again.
Republicans argue the bills would restore voter confidence and eliminate fraud without overly burdening voters, most of whom have driver's licenses or photo IDs anyway.
"I want everyone to be able to vote — once," said Indiana state Sen. Victor Heinold, a Republican.
Nineteen states require voters to show identification, but only five of those request photo ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (search). Those states — Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and South Dakota — allow voters without a photo ID to present other forms of identification, such as a utility bill, or sign an affidavit of identity.
Critics say the measures in Indiana, Georgia and Wisconsin do not provide good alternatives for those without photo IDs.
Georgia's proposal, for example, would allow people without photo IDs to cast provisional ballots but require them to return within 48 hours with a picture ID.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, said that amounts to "an updated form of Jim Crow," referring to segregation-era laws that kept blacks from voting. About 100 people rallied outside the Georgia Capitol last week to protest the legislation, which passed the state Senate on Tuesday and now goes to the House.
Wisconsin would require a government-issued photo ID from nearly all voters. Exceptions would be granted for domestic abuse victims, nursing home residents and those who have lost their driver's license.
Indiana would exempt only those who sign affidavits swearing they are too poor to get an ID or that they have religious objections to obtaining one.
"It's to break the spirit of the homeless, it's to break the spirit of the have-nots," complained Rep. Gregory Porter, a black Democrat from Indianapolis.
Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita (search), a Republican, noted that people already need photo ID for basic bank transactions. "Is everyone a racist? Are bank tellers racist?" he said. "I simply don't believe it is going to have the effect that they claim it does."
South Dakota enacted a photo ID law last year but allows voters to sign a one-paragraph affidavit of identity if they do not bring ID to the polls. In the November election, 2 percent of voters signed the affidavit, said Secretary of State Chris Nelson, a Republican. But some counties with large numbers of American Indians saw up to 25 percent of voters arrive at the polls without photo ID, he said.
"There are people that simply don't have photo identification," he said. "Some provision needs to be made for those people."
Similarly, in Georgia, the state chapter of AARP (search) estimated that 36 percent of Georgia residents 75 or older lack driver's licenses.
Opponents of Indiana's measure contend there is no solid evidence of fraud at the polls. But supporters argue that perception matters as much as reality, and people who think fraud is going to cancel out their ballot will not bother to vote.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, plans to sign the bill if lawmakers approve it, which appears likely. The GOP controls both chambers of the Legislature, and versions of the bill have passed both the House and Senate.
Tim Storey, an election analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said he expects the push for tighter voter identification laws to continue.
"We've seen this exponential increase in bills related to the elections process in the last five years," Storey said.
Rokita, Indiana's secretary of state, said he believes his state will lead the way. "In five years, the whole nation is going to be like Indiana," he said. "A majority of people want this in their elections."