Two states on Tuesday will consider how to balance voter rights against voter fraud in ballot initiatives that could provide momentum for other states to take up the issue in 2012 and beyond.
The split, which generally follows partisan lines, is also playing out in the Maine and Mississippi ballot votes.
Democrats allege that Republicans are setting stricter voting regulations in order to make it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies – such as the poor and immigrants – to vote. In line with this, Maine is considering allowing voters to register on the same day as an election – something GOP legislators in Maine had banned.
Meanwhile, Republicans suggest that Democrats benefit disproportionately from voter fraud and that states must take more steps to ensure that voters are who they say they are. Accordingly, Mississippi is considering whether to require photo ID at the polling locations.
The votes are seen as being merely the latest round in a national play for power at the voting booth by Republicans and Democrats.
“This is a key, American political system debate that has become more and more important since the razor-thin Florida vote in 2000 showed voters across the country how crucial registration can be in electing officials all the way from town halls to the White House,” says John Johannes, an election specialist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
The push for photo ID in the voting booth has already gained some traction nationwide. If Mississippi voters pass Initiative 27, the state would become the 15th to require photo identification at the polls.
“Voter fraud is not a new phenomenon, nor is it strictly limited to the participation of noncitizens,” says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limiting immigration. “However vote fraud is perpetrated, the integrity of the democratic process demands that we take all reasonable actions to prevent it from occurring.”
When Republicans took control of the Maine Legislature and the governor's office in 2010, they passed the law banning same-day voter registration precisely to target potential voter fraud. Question 1 on the ballot Tuesday is the voters' chance to veto that move.
“Being able to register to vote the same day is something that Maine has always taken pride in,” says Jamie McKown, a political scientist at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “So this vote will be analyzed for whether or not voters here think the GOP went too far when they took over here.”
How much of a problem illegal voting is – and how to fix it – is an issue that still needs to be clarified with research, say several analysts. Both sides have compelling arguments, says Professor Johannes. But the political lines are clear. Democratic voters tend to be more likely to vote on the spur of the moment, making same-day registration attractive, and their ranks are filled with more people – young, old, minority, and poor – who are less likely to have photo ID.
“On one hand, this is a political issue with Democrats trying to enhance their chances by making it easier for more people to vote, and Republicans seeking to suppress Democratic chances by making it harder,” says Johannes. “On the other hand, it’s a philosophical debate with Republicans claiming that someone has to protect the purity of the ballot from fraud. Who is right? Both.”
Roughly 11 percent of the US adult population does not have a valid, government-issued photo ID, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Moreover, he suggests that Republicans are trying to fix a problem that does not exist.
“The issue is that there is no evidence of voting fraud in this country,” says Mr. Vargas. “These are solutions in search of a problem and have the effect of making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”
But the founder and editor of NewSeniors.com, a website for those just turning 65, says requiring ID would not suppress older voters in the slightest.
“What’s the big deal about showing one's ID? We do it when asked at stores and financial institutions. We do it when going to board a plane or boat. We do it when going to the doctor or hospital, assuming we intend to pay for the treatment and services,” says Don Potter. “Why shouldn’t we show proof when going to the polls that we are who we say we are and have a right to vote? This is a no-brainer.”
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