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electionlineWeekly--August 18, 2011

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Suddenly, the voter ID debate is unpredictable

by Doug Chapin, Program for Excellence in Election Administration, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
special to electionlineWeekly

Over the last several years, the debate about voter ID, especially requirements that voters show photo identification as a condition of casting a ballot, has become so predictable as to seem almost routine.



ID proponents – usually Republicans – argue that the spectre of voter fraud demands safeguards like ID to protect the sanctity of the ballot box, while opponents – usually Democrats – see ID requirements as barriers to the polls and thus vow to fight them in the name of combating disenfranchisement.

Indeed, in recent years the best predictor of whether voter ID would advance in a given state was whether or not Republicans held legislative majorities and the governorship.

Recently, however, the headlines have brought new twists that suggest that the voter ID debate is no longer the predictable partisan storyline we have all come to know – if not love:

  • In Rhode Island - a state with Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, voter ID legislation – albeit less strict than companion bills elsewhere - passed overwhelmingly and was signed by an Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) over the objection of his traditional allies in the advocacy community;
  • In Ohio, voter ID was moving swiftly through the GOP-controlled state legislature on its way to the desk of Governor Jon Kasich, also a Republican. Then, it hit an unexpected roadblock – the opposition of GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted, a former state senator and state House Speaker, who said in a statement that “I would rather have no bill than one with a rigid photo identification provision that does little to protect against fraud and excludes legally registered voters' ballots from counting.”

While it isn’t clear if these two examples are merely outliers, it is remarkable that they didn’t follow the usual script on voter ID. Moreover, these twists raise several questions about the future of the voter ID debate:

1.Does the passage of the Rhode Island bill mean that voter ID has reached a critical mass nationwide that legislators – especially Democrats - feel compelled to follow?

2.Does the Ohio experience suggest that GOP unanimity on ID issues is becoming more nuanced?

3.Will the specifics of ID legislation become more important? Earlier this year, Sean Greene wrote about the fiscal impact of ID bills, but other issues are also starting to get traction. For example, New Hampshire State Senator Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, recently told a group of election officials he supported ID in principle but would vote to uphold a veto of a bill by Governor John Lynch (D) because it would have required voters without ID to cast a provisional ballot.

4.Will technology be a game-changer? Volusia County, Fla. announced recently that it will use a card reader to swipe IDs and streamline the voting process. If the system works as expected and localities can afford the cost (note: experience suggests that those are both big “ifs”), the resulting impact on the voting process could re-open or re-cast the debate in many states.

5.Or are Rhode Island and Ohio just outliers, with the parties retreating to familiar rhetorical territory as Election Day 2012 draws ever closer?

 Time will tell – but if nothing else, the voter ID debate just got a little more interesting again.