Sticking point of voting-reform bid: photo IDs

A bipartisan panel urged fixes to US elections Monday, but critics object to call for IDs.

Since the disputed election of 2000, some Americans have lost faith that their votes count.

The federal reforms of 2002 were a start, say voting experts, but more is needed. Problems in the 2004 elections - from long lines at polling stations to inconsistent handling of provisional ballots - have exacerbated the sense that US elections are flawed.

Now, a bipartisan commission headed by former President Carter, a Democrat, and former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, has recommended additional changes - including a call for all voters to show photo IDs, paper trails for electronic voting machines, and a shift toward nonpartisan administration of elections.

But a backlash over the photo ID recommendation, in particular, threatens to overtake any attention to the 86 other recommendations. Additional election reform was already a low priority on Congress's agenda, the commission itself acknowledges, and now the controversy may have complicated matters.

"The real divide [over election reform] boils down to the voter-fraud side for conservatives and voter-access issues for liberals," says Rob Richie, executive director of the group Fair Vote, which seeks to increase participation in elections.

The report's recommendation that, by 2010, all states require voters to show a government-issued photo ID card to vote goes right to the question of how poverty and race affect the ability to vote.

About 12 percent of the voting-age population does not have a driver's license, a group that skews toward minorities and low-income workers.

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, a member of the commission, dissented on that part of the report, comparing the requirement of an ID to a " modern-day poll tax."

Ironically, the voter-ID issue is already in the headlines in Mr. Carter's home state of Georgia. On Monday, voting and civil-rights groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID at the polls - a new law the litigants call the most restrictive of its kind in the US.

Anticipating criticism over voter IDs, the Carter-Baker commission recommended that states provide free ID cards to those who don't already have one, and take measures to ensure privacy.

Still, critics say, there remains the challenge for elderly, infirm, low-income, and rural citizens to travel to a location and obtain the ID. Further, they add, there is no such requirement for photo IDs with absentee ballots, only a requirement that signatures match.

Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles, bemoans the siphoning of attention away from what he sees as a significant recommendation: the removal of control of elections from partisan politicians and into the hands of impartial election administrators. Once implemented, that step would go far toward restoring Americans' confidence in elections, he says.

"We cannot build confidence in elections if secretaries of State responsible for certifying votes are simultaneously chairing political campaigns," the report said.

That statement was a veiled reference to recent examples in states that proved critical to the outcome of presidential races: Florida Rep. Katherine Harris (R), secretary of State for Florida during the 2000 election, was also co-chair of President Bush's Florida campaign. In Ohio in 2004, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell performed the same role for Bush.

"It took the debacle in Florida 2000 and further problems in 2004 to illustrate what the problems are; public confidence has shot way down," says Professor Hasen. He notes that in Washington State, where the Democratic gubernatorial candidate squeaked by the Republican in the 2004 race, the problem is reversed: Republicans there are more cynical than Democrats over the fairness of the outcome.

"The hope was that the Carter-Baker commission would move beyond politics, and move into consensus recommendations, which are desperately needed," Hasen says. "I think they've squandered their political capital. In 2004, my phone was ringing off the hook with reporters asking why things haven't been fixed. It will happen in 2008."

The commission recommended that a state's chief election officer be an appointed position, with two-thirds approval by the state legislature. At the federal level, the commission recommended that a nonpartisan chairperson be added to the four-person US Election Assistance Commission. This person would be nominated by the president to a 10-year term and confirmed by the Senate.

Other commission proposals include:

• A new system of presidential primaries, in which four regional primaries are held, one per month beginning in March of an election. Every election, a different region would hold its primaries first, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

• Maintenance of voter lists by states, and not localities, allowing for greater "interoperability" among states. Such a system is aimed at eliminating the potential for voters to cast ballots in more than one state and also could allow voters to register once in their lives and then make it easier to update registration information when they move.

• Passage by Congress of a law that would require all voting machines to have a "voter-verifiable paper audit trail."

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