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Lou Cannon: Partisan Politics Overshadows Genuine Voter ID Reforms

State and federal courts have slowed the steady march of the states toward sterner standards of voter identification.

A state judge in Arkansas and a federal judge in Wisconsin recently struck down strict voter ID laws. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has decided not to appeal an earlier state court decision invalidating the strict voter ID law in the Keystone State.

Democrats and liberal groups who in the past have criticized courts for upholding voter ID laws, hailed these latest actions as lowering voting barriers. It’s too early, however, said Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures, to determine if these decisions represent a legal trend or to know their possible impact on future legislative actions.

Currently, 31 states have voter ID laws, which range widely in their requirements. Eleven states have strict voter ID laws. Underhill, the NCSL expert on the issue, defines strict laws as those requiring voters without acceptable identification to cast a provisional ballot and take subsequent steps to have that vote counted.

Courts have generally smiled on lenient voter ID laws. Since the laws invalidated in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were all of the strict variety, legislatures in these states presumably will have the option of passing voter ID laws more likely to pass legal muster when they reconvene in 2015.

Voter ID laws are often seen as synonymous with photographic identification. But 15 states, including three with strict voter ID laws, permit nonphotographic alternatives. Depending on the state, these can be a utility bill or tax statement, a vehicle registration, a student or military ID card, a bank statement or paycheck, a birth certificate, a passport or a Social Security card. In Alaska a hunting license is valid identification.

Nonetheless, some Democrats contend that voter ID laws by their nature tend to depress election turnout of poor people, minorities and seniors — constituencies in which their party holds an edge. Republicans respond that voter ID laws are needed to guarantee ballot security and prevent fraud.

The attitudes on both sides are stronger than the evidence. Nationally, voter fraud is barely a blip on the electoral radar screen. In Ohio, for example, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted directed all election boards to report cases of alleged voter fraud in the 2012 elections. Some 270 alleged fraud cases were eventually referred to law enforcement, less than five one-thousandths of 1 percent of the 5.63 million people who cast ballots. Results were equally unimpressive in Iowa, where Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz recently completed a two-year, $250,000 investigation that discovered only 117 cases of voter fraud out of almost 1.6 million ballots cast. Another 17 are still under investigation. Of those 134 cases, however, only 27 people have been charged with a crime and only six have been convicted.

Of even more significance, only a handful of these referrals produced criminal charges. Prosecutors surveyed by the Northeast Ohio Media Group found that many voters suspected of falsely registering at the wrong address had simply moved. In other cases, said Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, “a number of elderly voters who had apparent memory issues ... voted twice or attempted to vote twice. A criminal prosecution was not deemed proper.”

But the Democratic claim that strict identification laws suppress the vote is as devoid of evidence as the Republican fantasy of widespread voter fraud. Georgia and Indiana enacted strict voter ID laws in 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indiana law by a 6-3 vote, in the process clearing the way for the similar Georgia statute. Critics of voter ID predicted dire consequences, but minority voting in these states has not declined.

Tim Storey, a political analyst with NCSL, suggests that advocates and critics of voter ID tend to become captives of their rhetoric instead of relying on objective analysis. Storey said both parties typically view any proposed electoral reform “through the prism of partisan advantage.”

That’s unfortunate, because states have made some useful changes that have the potential to expand the electorate. Most important of these is online voting registration, pioneered by Arizona in 2002.  Nineteen states now offer online registration. Four others have approved the concept but not yet implemented it.

Online registration has the added value of saving money. Arizona, for instance, reduced coststo 3 cents per online registration from 83 cents per paper registration. Other states with online registration have also experienced significant cost savings.

But in an election year it’s hard for impartial discussion of electoral reform to prevail against the competing partisan narratives.

The Democratic case was presented in a New York Times story that lumped voter ID laws with efforts in Republican-controlled states to limit the days and hours that polls are open “in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.”

Liberals have also cited U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman’s sharply worded decision striking down Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law. Adelman said the law unduly burdened minority voters, many of whom lacked photo identification. He also found no evidence of voter impersonation in Wisconsin. The state’s Republican leaders plan to appeal.

On the conservative side, writing in National Review Online, John Fund, co-author of a book on voting fraud, made the case that such fraud is endemic in Philadelphia, no matter which party is in control.

As a political issue, the suspicion that Republicans want to suppress the vote has helped Democrats, who in the 2012 elections used this charge to mobilize their base. Saying openly what other members of his party have said privately, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently told The New York Times that Republicans may have over-emphasized voting fraud.

“I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people,” Paul said. He later softened his language while emphasizing that he also favored allowing convicted felons to regain their voting rights, an issue of importance to African Americans.

Paul’s break from partisan orthodoxy is welcome. It would be even more welcome if both parties scrapped formulaic talking points about “ballot security” and “voter suppression,” embraced modern technology and tried seriously to improve the voting process.

In a society in which identification is often annoyingly required for trivial financial transactions, voter ID is unlikely to disappear. So the practical alternative for those who distrust such laws is to improve them. Among the possibilities are biometric solutions such as fingerprints and retinal scans that could be used at polling booths instead of photo identification.

Some will hear the footsteps of Big Brother in such methods. They may prefer a less intrusive experiment pioneered in Minnesota and Nevada and now used by jurisdictions, mostly counties, in 27 states. It’s called the “electronic poll book,” which is an electronic version of the voter rolls. Many counties that have used it say it speeds the voting process and enables an easy check of voter data. It also shifts responsibility for voter identification to the state from the voter.

Voting is a foundation of American democracy. Instead of cheap political appeals, voters deserve reforms that make it easier to register and vote while also guarding against any abuse of the process. The spread of online registration and such experiments as the electronic poll book suggest that such reforms are within reach.

Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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