As most legislative work around the country came to a standstill over the July 4th holiday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made headlines last week when he broke with the Republican Party to veto a law that would have tightened Michigan’s current “voter ID” law, just a few months ahead of Election Day.
The move is an indication that despite the intense anxiety about the wave of voter ID laws, which place new restrictions on voters before they can cast a ballot, the legislation is facing tough challenges even before being enacted. Opponents have found a variety of means to mute the impact of such legislation.
Republicans backing the laws, which have passed in 11 states in the past two years alone, insist that the measures are meant to curb voter fraud and are commonsense requirements that shouldn't prove to be too onerous for any legitimately eligible voter. But Democrats see a more sinister design in the measures -- as part of a broader GOP effort to rig elections in its favor by suppressing constituencies that tend to vote Democratic: minorities, low-income voters, students, and even women.
That impression was fueled recently when Republican Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, highlighted the partisan impact of the state’s new voting restrictions. “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” Turzai said to applause at a Republican State Committee meeting.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that as many as 11 percent of voters do not have the government-issued photo IDs that are the center of much of the legislation, and that as many as 5 million voters could be impacted by the most recent spate of legislation.
“People don’t realize that these voter ID laws aren’t the reasonable ID laws that we’ve seen in the past,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan arm of the New York University School of Law that has been involved in lawsuits challenging the new laws. “These are far more restrictive, and these will exclude large number of eligible voters, and that’s a much bigger deal than any of the kinds of measures that we’ve seen before.”
Some states have provided multiple ways around the photo-ID requirements. But others take a hard line, permitting those who are not able to procure a satisfactory ID to vote only by provisional ballot and prove they are who they say are within a given time frame.
A few also appear to favor certain constituencies over others: In Texas, for example, concealed handgun licenses are an acceptable form of ID under a new law that's yet to take effect, but student ID cards are not.
Nonetheless, Democrats and other groups battling the legislation have scored key victories. Many of the measures will not be in effect by Election Day, blocked by pending litigation, slapped down by the Justice Department, or vetoed.
Democratic governors in five states -- Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina -- have joined Snyder in vetoing versions of voter-ID laws. Meanwhile, a strict photo-ID law in Wisconsin was declared unconstitutional by a state judge earlier this year and will not be in effect in November unless a higher court reverses the decision.
In some states, the laws are mired in a thicket of lawsuits and countersuit. In others, any change to election procedure has to be cleared by the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The department denied voter-ID laws proposed by Texas and South Carolina, although both are appealing the decisions. Virginia’s new law is pending approval by Justice.
Daniel Fee, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant, says he thinks his state’s strict photo-ID law, passed earlier this year, will be blocked before Election Day by one of the lawsuits currently working their way through the system. More worrisome is if the march of the laws spreads to states where elections will be decided by smaller margins.
“That seems to be the intent,” Fee said.
The momentum, at least, seems to be on Republicans' side. Georgia was among the first states to pass a voter-ID law in 2006. Now, 30 states have some version on the books, varying in degree, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In some states, photo-identification laws are only the tip of the iceberg. In Florida, for example, a sweeping election law signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott shortened the period for early voting and required third-party groups registering voters to turn in documentation within 48 hours or risk heavy fines. That provision was ultimately knocked down by a federal judge.
Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that works to lower barriers to participation, said that the patchwork of rules across the states is cumbersome and intimidating for historically reluctant groups of voters.
“The mere fact that these laws exist can be intimidating and discourage folks,” she said. “The fact they are the least heard and rarely listened to is very disturbing.”
Fighting the laws is also a drain on time and resources, she said, and must be waged on a case-by-case basis. And the organization isn’t expecting the tussles over voter-ID laws to subside.
“No matter which party is in power, I think people are intent on keeping their power and utilize the system to win their elections,” said Jeanette Senecal, elections director for the League. “It will always be necessary to defend voters.”