March 1, 2014 10:25:48 PM
WASHINGTON -- In elections that begin next week, voters in 10 states will be required to present photo identification before casting ballots -- the first major test of voter ID laws after years of legal challenges arguing that the measures are designed to suppress voting.
The first election is March 4 in Texas, followed by nine other primaries running through early September that will set the ballot for the midterm elections in November, when voters decide competitive races for governor and control of Congress.
The primaries will be closely watched by both sides of the voter ID debate, which intensified in 2011, the year after Republicans swept to power in dozens of statehouses.
For months, election workers have been preparing new voting procedures, while party activists and political groups seek ID cards for voters who do not have them.
The debut of the new laws in a few smaller-scale elections over the last year has already exposed some problems, such as mismatched names, confusion over absentee voting provisions and rules that require voters to travel great distances to obtain proper documentation. In one case, voters had no recourse if their credentials were challenged.
"Unless people are paying attention, and a lot of them aren't, they don't even know this law exists," said Brian Schoenman, secretary of the elections board in Fairfax County, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb.
Supporters of the measures, mostly Republican conservatives, contend the ID checks protect against fraudulent voting and thus help build trust in government. Critics see them as a way of discouraging the kind of voters who lack picture IDs and might be more likely to support Democrats.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that states can require voters to produce photo ID at the polls without violating their constitutional rights. And last year, the high court threw out a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act, a decision that allowed voter ID laws to take effect in states where voting procedures had been under strict federal oversight for nearly 50 years.
Georgia and Indiana adopted some of the first voter ID laws. This year, in addition to the Texas law, new or stricter photo-identification voting laws take effect in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia.
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have approved similar action, but those measures are on hold because of court challenges. In Mississippi, black lawmakers have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to block their state's law.
When Arkansas held a special legislative election in January, dozens of mail-in absentee votes were thrown out after voters failed to include a copy of their photo ID with their ballot. The Arkansas law, passed over Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto, did not address absentee voting, and the GOP-controlled Legislature is not expected to take it up during the 2014 session.
The law allows voters without photo ID to cast a provisional ballot, but the ballot will not be counted unless they show identification by the Monday after the election.
"This is in no way an effort to suppress any valid vote," said GOP state Rep. Andy Mayberry, who supported the law. "It's a measure to help secure the credibility of our elections."
Arkansas voters will have two important races to decide this year. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, is expected to face an aggressive challenge from Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. A competitive contest for governor is also unfolding, with Republican former Rep. Asa Hutchinson likely to run against Democrat Mike Ross.
The higher-than-normal turnout expected for the midterm election will only compound the problems that emerged during the January election, according to Craighead County Election Commission Chairman Scott McDaniel, a Democrat.
"I foresee a great number, an unacceptable number of absentee voters to be disenfranchised because of this whole deal, and I don't like it," McDaniel said.
Virginia could be particularly confusing. Majority Republicans enacted a law requiring proof of identification, but no photo, in 2012. Last year, they amended the law to require photo ID to vote but set the effective date for the new law as July 1.
Virginia's primary is June 10, when voters will not be required to present a photo. But in November, they will.
"What I'm worried about is you've got a good number of communities of elderly, and foreign-born citizens who speak different languages," Schoenman said. "And we'll only have four months to get ready."
The state has about 330,000 more registered voters than licensed drivers, which is why minority Democrats last week unsuccessfully sought $250,000 to pay for the photo ID cards voters must have by November.
Democrats will be seeking to safeguard every potential vote. Last year's attorney general race was decided by 11 votes. This fall, the Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Warner is on the ballot, and the GOP needs to gain only six seats to claim the majority.
In Texas, as many as 600,000 voters could be prevented from having their ballots counted because of the state's newly enacted photo ID law, according to officials with Battleground Texas, a Democratic-leaning group aimed at helping register new voters.
One third of Texas' 254 counties do not have Department of Public Safety stations that can provide the cards. That means voters without proper identification have to drive more than 200 miles to get a card, provided they have the proper documentation, such as a birth certificate.
Still, state GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri said few problems popped up with the law during last year's election, a low-turnout affair that included constitutional changes but only drew about 10 percent of the electorate.
"The law has already been tested and performed quite well. I see no reason for concern," Munisteri said.
The 10 percent were devout voters, well aware of the new requirements, said Dana DeBeauvoir, election commissioner in Travis County, which includes Austin.
"This was not a population that needs extra support," she said. "Where we're going to see the problem is in November."
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University is suing Texas and states with similar laws, but it's not clear whether the lawsuits will be decided by November.
"We have shown already that these laws correlate with places that had demographic changes that currently favor Democrats," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Institute's Democracy program. "When you look at these things together, what's going on is discrimination."
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