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In legislatures and courtrooms, busy weeks ahead for voter ID

In an election year dominated by battles over health care mandates, tax rates, and rising gasoline prices, it’s the mechanics of voting – and who’ll get to vote in November – that’s getting full-time attention from state legislators, election lawyers, and judges.

In the latest example, the Virginia state Senate is headed for a vote Friday on a new voter identification requirement – one more indication that the voter ID controversy will keep boiling in legislatures and in the courts right up to Election Day.

These new voter ID laws are being proposed almost exclusively by Republican legislators and governors in states throughout the nation, spawning both litigation and angry rhetoric from Democrats.

“All of a sudden after the 2008 election, these (voter ID laws) miraculously appear,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D- Fla. at a recent anti-voter ID event at the Capitol. “Why? Because we have a black president in the White House and it is to stop all of the people of color from … coming out to vote, because they (the proponents of voter ID laws) know who they are targeting …"

Here’s the status of some recently enacted voter ID laws and states where such laws might be considered this year:

Enacted but blocked
South Carolina: Last December, the Justice Department denied approval of the state’s voter ID law requiring voters to present photo identification that Gov. Nikki Haley had signed in May. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina is one of nine states that must seek approval, or “pre-clearance,” from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., in order to make any change in voting procedure.

State Attorney General Alan Wilson brought suit in federal court, arguing that the requirements “are at most a temporary inconvenience” to some voters. The state contended that its law was nearly identical to one enacted by Indiana and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008. Therefore barring South Carolina from doing what Indiana had done would “raise serious constitutional concerns” about whether Section 5 “violates South Carolina’s right to equal sovereignty.”

In a separate but related case with big implications for voter ID laws, Shelby County, Ala., is fighting in the federal appeals court in Washington to have Section 5 of VRA struck down as unconstitutional. The appeals court heard oral arguments on Jan. 19 and a ruling is likely in the next several weeks.  The Shelby County case will likely end up before the Supreme Court and if the justices were to strike down Section 5, the Justice Department would no longer be able to pre-emptively block changes in voting laws.  The department would still be able to use another Section of the VRA to challenge voting laws that have a racially discriminatory impact.

Enacted but likely to be blocked
Texas: State Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a suit last month in federal court, asking that Texas be permitted this year to use the photo ID law Gov. Rick Perry signed last spring.

Under Section 5 of the VRA, the Justice Department is now considering Texas’s law, having asked for additional information from the state on the race and ethnicity of Texas voters and drivers. The department must give its response to the Texas law by March 12.

In his filing, Abbott said Texas did not have the racial and ethnic data the Justice Department wanted. “Indeed, the very reason Texas refuses to maintain racial and ethnic data on its list of registered voters is to facilitate a colorblind electoral process,” he said.

Even in the unlikely event the Justice Department were to approve the Texas law, opponents of the law contend that there would be problems implementing it.

“The state is not ready to allow citizens the ability to obtain this kind of voter ID,” said Rep. Charlie Gonzales, D- Texas. “It goes way beyond just going to the Department of Public Safety and standing in line. You still have to have your birth certificate; if you’re divorced and your name is different you have to get a certified copy of your divorce decree. There are so many hoops to jump through.”

Enacted but may be blocked
Laws similar to those in South Carolina and Texas have passed in several states and are likely to be opposed by the Justice Department over the same concerns.

Alabama:  Another Section 5 state, Alabama passed a voter ID law which doesn’t take effect until 2014.

Mississippi:  Voters last November approved a ballot initiative to create a photo ID requirement. But the legislature must provide funding to implement the law and the state must receive Justice Department approval since Mississippi is a Section 5 state.

Wisconsin: On Tuesday Wisconsin conducted its first elections under the voter ID law that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed last year.  Wisconsin is not covered by Section 5 of the VRA but challenges have already been launched. On Thursday civil rights groups and a labor union coalition filed a suit against the law arguing that it discriminates against black and Latino voters. The American Civil Liberties Union has also filed a suit seeking to block enforcement of the law. One argument ACLU makes is that the cost of obtaining a copy of a birth certificate ($20 in Wisconsin, more in other states) in order to get a state ID card would be “a severe financial burden” for some people, a burden that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The voting in municipal and county primary elections in Wisconsin went smoothly, according to the Associated Press. Walker commented on his Twitter account: “1st election w/photo ID required & it seems to have run well. Proof that common sense still works.”

But Rep. Gwen Moore, D- Wisc., a longtime political foe of Walker, alleges the governor "clearly has had a goal for many, many years to disenfranchise people of color."

She also contended that the law would hurt President Barack Obama’s chances to win the state in November, adding, “This is strictly designed to disenfranchise people who would otherwise vote for Democrats."

Asked to comment on Moore’s remarks, Walker’s spokesman Cullen Werwie said, “Requiring photo identification to vote is common sense – we require it to get a library card, cold medicine, and public assistance.  Gov. Walker will continue to implement common sense reforms that protect the electoral process and increases citizens’ confidence in the results of our elections.” 

May be enacted this year
Virginia:  The state Senate is likely to vote Friday on a bill that would require a voter to present some form of identification but would allow him or her to use an employee identification card containing a photograph of the voter, or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, or paycheck that shows the name and address of the voter. As a VRA Section 5-covered state, Virginia would need to gets its law cleared by the Justice Department.

Pennsylvania:  The Pennsylvania House passed a voter ID bill last year. Both Republican and Democratic sources say that there will be a renewed push for voter ID to pass in the state Senate, where the GOP has a 30 to 20 majority, and to be sent on to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for his signature in the next couple of months. Corbett has said he supports a voter ID law.

Minnesota: A Minnesota state senate committee has approved a proposed amendment to the state constitution to require photo ID for voting, but it has yet to be approved by the full state senate and the state House. Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed a voter ID bill which had been passed by the Republican-majority state legislature. 

Missouri: On the November ballot is a proposed amendment to the state constitution which would allow for the legislature to impose a photo ID requirement. Republican state Sen. Bill Stouffer, the sponsor of that measure, predicts it will pass with 75 percent or more of the vote. The legislature last year passed a photo ID bill which Democratic Gov.  Jay Nixon vetoed.

Recently enacted
Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Kansas all enacted photo ID laws last year. None has yet been enjoined or struck down.  None of those states are covered by Section 5 of the VRA.

Not likely to be enacted this year
Iowa: The state’s Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz has proposed a photo identification law but state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal opposes the idea.

Ohio: The Ohio House passed a photo ID bill last year but the Senate didn’t act on it. The prospects do not look good for passing a bill this year, said Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican.

He said the photo ID bill last year “polarized people over the whole concept of election reform and modernization. The photo ID bill was much more ‘nuclear,’” he said, than another bill, which he supported, to shorten and standardize the early voting period in every country in the state.  “Once it (the photo ID bill) came on the scene, the common-sense conversations stopped and … it was really hard to build consensus around thoughtful reforms,” Husted said.