Struggle over voter IDs evokes a bitter past

In Georgia and other states, legislative brawls break out over whether ID rules will prevent fraud or deter voters.

In this run-down South Carolina border town, up the street from the Repo Depo, Timothy Hardwick is padding his income by selling boiled peanuts from a propane burner on the back of a truck.

As with many Americans, what Mr. Hardwick is missing in wealth is in part eased by his ability to help steer the national body politic at the ballot box. But that sense of endowment, he says, is now at risk. Here in South Carolina and dozens of other states - often with large black or Hispanic populations - a campaign is under way to toughen the voting process by demanding that registered voters flash a picture ID in order to post a ballot.

It's a touchy proposal, especially in the South where many Americans still remember poll taxes and strong-arm techniques that kept blacks from voting. "This will only discourage voting," says the lanky, tattooed Hardwick. "You only have to be a citizen to vote, not a citizen with his face on a card."

Proponents describe the regulations as a bid to defend the election process against abuse. They point to a 2004 Government Accountability Office statistic indicating that from 2000 to 2003, there were 61 probes into election fraud nationwide.

But some liken Republican promotion of tougher rules to Jim Crow-era tactics. Across the South, black legislators have openly wept and rattled shackles, even in the halls of state capitols, at the prospect. Democrats are defending the notion that the potential for fraud is less damaging than an infringement on the full feeling of suffrage. Caught in the crossfire are perhaps 6 percent of the population who may have trouble meeting the new requirement, despite being otherwise eligible to stand up and be counted at the ballot box.

Voter IDs "are the most bitterly partisan fight in the area of election reform," says Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in voting rights. "Democrats see this as an attempt to disenfranchise poor minority voters, and Republicans see it as rooting out fraud. It's the place where the access-versus-integrity debate is at its most heated."

Today 20 states require some kind of identification, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate, or utility bill, at the polls. Florida, South Carolina, South Dakota, Hawaii, and Louisiana demand a government-issued photo ID, but officials there allow voters to sign an affidavit to vouch for their identity. Now requirements are getting tougher. Twenty-five voter ID bills were filed this year, with legislative brawls breaking out behind every one. Georgia, Arizona, and Indiana lawmakers passed even tougher restrictions this year, limiting the forms of ID voters can use.

Big battles are under way in Texas and Ohio. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle (D) vetoed a voter ID bill late last month, citing its potential effect on some 100,000 elderly voters in the Badger State.

Part of the debate has to do with the fact that while the US Constitution extends voting rights to all Americans, many state constitutions treat voting as a privilege. Though no panacea, "voter ID cards certainly add an element of proof and authenticity to the election process," says Harold Stanley, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and author of "Vital Statistics in American Politics."

Indeed, many Americans find it shocking that it's possible to bring simply a utility bill, as has been the case in Georgia up to now, or even no identification at all, to many polls in order to cast a vote.

"There's no reason to not address the issue," says Erick Erickson, a Macon, Ga., political consultant who helped draft the tough new Georgia law. "I have to have a photo ID to cash a check, rent a movie, enter a federal building, go to a courthouse - why not have a photo ID when I go into a poll to ensure the integrity of the ballot?"

Still, many Democrats are ready to ascribe sinister motives to the Republican-led policing of the polling place. What's more, critics say that the Georgia bill, for instance, fails to address actual voting irregularities, which occur mostly with absentee ballots. Indeed, the new Georgia law loosens restrictions on absentee ballots, in part to allow residents with no ID to vote away from the polling place.

Yet what may be more likely, says Georgia Senate minority leader Robert Brown (D), is that some Republican lawmakers are "out of touch" with poorer constituents. After all, there are still Americans living in remote shacks and tents on the margins of society "Believe it or not, not everyone in this country uses checks or credit cards, and not everyone has a utility bill," says Senator Brown.

Moreover, he says, there's an almost tangible pride, especially for Americans who were once denied the vote, to show up at a polling place and cast a ballot.

Because of its past problems with voter suppression, Georgia has to undergo a Department of Justice probe to determine whether the new law is legal under the Voting Rights Act. In Indiana, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union is also challenging that state's new law.

A week after signing the voter ID law, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue repealed four Jim Crow-era laws, in an effort toward reconciliation. But black legislators weren't mollified.

"The Jim Crow laws were unenforceable and just symbolic, but the utility of that symbolism being erased was completely lost" by signing the voter ID law, says Brown.

Even in the most out-of-the-way little burgs, and perhaps more so than in other places, the right to vote is part of an American inheritance, a way to draw a kind of currency on the common wealth of democracy. Still, J.B. Jackson, a friend of peanut salesman Mr. Hardwick, says IDs are a crucial way of safeguarding the integrity of what has, to many Americans, become an electoral process of questionable virtue.

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