October 5, 2010

Should the state require you to show ID to vote?

Kansas does not require a photo ID to vote, but the idea it is a hot topic in this year's secretary of state race, and the Legislature is likely to consider it in 2011.

For most people who vote at the polls, showing a photo identification wouldn't be a problem.

Whip out a driver's license or some other government-issued ID with your picture on it, and you're set.

But it's not so easy for others, particularly those who are already underrepresented at the polls, election analysts say.

Kansas does not require a photo ID to vote, but the idea it is a hot topic in this year's secretary of state race, and the Legislature is likely to consider it in 2011.

Only eight states have some form of a voter photo ID law, enacted in 2005 or later, and Oklahoma has it on the November ballot.

Indiana and Georgia have the most restrictive voter photo ID laws in the nation. Voters who go to the polls must show an approved photo ID, or they'll have to cast provisional ballots and then show up later at the election office with the proper ID so their ballots will count.

A voter has 10 days to get that done in Indiana, two days in Georgia.

With such a short timeline and few states, election analysts say they don't have a handle on the impact of such laws. But there's no shortage of passionate opinions.

"Protecting the votes of honest people from being diluted by those who have no respect for the franchise is the right thing to do," Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Republican, said in June after the Indiana Supreme Court upheld that state's photo ID law.

But Beth White, a Democrat and clerk of Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, said, "Every year, someone is turned away at the polls because they don't have a photo ID. I consider that terribly, terribly unfortunate."

Proponents say carrying a photo ID is routine because a person can't get on a plane or cash a check without one. Opponents counter that boarding a plane or cashing a check isn't a constitutional right — voting is.

Opponents also say that voter fraud is negligible and that it's hard for some to get a photo ID, particularly populations such as minorities and frail elderly who are already underrepresented at the polls.

"I'm afraid there's an intimidation factor," said Jessica Reiser, president of the League of Women Voters in Michigan, which has a photo ID law. "You have to understand and be able to maneuver government bureaucracy to accomplish that.

"If you don't have a car, you have to take a bus. There are costs."

Research has shown that racial or ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, are more likely to be asked for ID at the polls, said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in election law. He also said an ID is requested of men more than women.

"There's always a concern that poll workers will exercise their authority in a way that's unfair or discriminatory," he said.

An issue in Kansas

A requirement for photo ID at the polls has been considered repeatedly in Kansas. The most recent attempt came in 2008, when it was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.

It is a key topic in the secretary of state race.

Republican candidate Kris Kobach strongly supports the measure.

"It just makes so much sense to take these reasonable steps against voter fraud," he said. "There's no real downside to it. We're protecting this most precious right of citizenship. It's easy for people to present a photo ID.

"The bottom line for me is we need to make it easy to vote but hard to cheat."

Current Secretary of State Chris Biggs, the Democratic candidate, and his immediate predecessor, Republican Ron Thornburgh, have said voter fraud is so rare that it isn't a significant threat to the integrity of elections. Biggs said there are safeguards to prevent fraud at the polls.

"We do have a problem with voting," Biggs said, "but it's not voter fraud: It's voter apathy.

"Whenever we put restrictions on votes, we have to proceed with caution. Sometimes restrictions have been used to exclude people (from voting)."

Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said lawmakers are likely to consider issues such as requiring proof of citizenship and photo ID to vote when they return in January, particularly if Kobach wins.

A Kobach victory would show that "the people of Kansas want those kinds of reforms passed to make sure we have secure elections," Kinzer said.

Sam Brownback, the Republican candidate for governor, supports a law that requires a voter show a photo ID at the polls. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Holland opposes the requirement.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, echoed Biggs' sentiments that that Kansas has adequate voter ID requirements in place because a voter must present identification at the time he registers or show it the first time he shows up at the polls.

But in Kansas it doesn't have to be a photo ID. A utility bill or a fishing license will work.

Requirements vary

The eight states with photo ID laws vary in their requirements.

Hawaii says a voter has to provide an ID only if asked by a poll worker. Florida will give a provisional ballot to a voter who doesn't have the required photo ID. Unlike Indiana and Georgia, it doesn't require that voters go back to the election office later with the photo ID.

Five of the eight, including Michigan, allow voters who go to a poll without a photo ID to sign an affidavit affirming their identity.

Paul Gronke, an author and political science professor at Reed College in Oregon who specializes in studying elections, said he has mixed feelings about the photo ID laws.

"Voting is a fundamental act of citizenship in any democracy and should not be treated like an ATM transaction or getting a burger at McDonald's," he said. "You don't want to make it inconvenient and hard, but I sometimes react against the idea that we make it easy.

"There's noting wrong with being asked to establish your identity. I think you want as much trust and confidence in the election system as possible."

At the same time, he said, "It disturbs me when I see the kinds of people less likely to have a photo ID are the same kinds of people who have historically been underrepresented in our political system."

Bottom line?

"I'm a supporter of voter ID," he said, "but I think the government should make registration easier and make photo IDs basically free."

Court challenges

Photo ID laws are also being challenged in court.

Missouri had a strict photo ID law, but it was struck down in October 2006 by the state Supreme Court.

Rep. Kinzer suggested that Kansas should pattern its law after Georgia's or Indiana's.

Both those states have withstood legal challenges to their ID laws, although Georgia is back before the state Supreme Court after the state's Democratic Party argued that the law does nothing to prevent voter fraud and violates the state constitution.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 upheld the constitutionality of Indiana's law. But observers say the court likely would have ruled against Indiana if it had not provided a free voter identity card to those who don't have acceptable identification.

Ballots by mail

Those who mail in ballots don't have to meet the same photo ID requirements as those who vote at the polls, even though most experts agree that voter fraud is most likely to happen with mail-in ballots.

Earlier this year the League of Women Voters challenged the Indiana requirement in state Supreme Court, arguing that the law violates the state constitution because it imposed a requirement on some voters but not all. The challenge failed.

Increasingly, more people are mailing in ballots. Kansas hit 35 percent in 2008.

In Kansas, the decision whether to verify signatures on mail-in ballots is made on a county basis.

Brad Bryant, the election director for Kansas' Secretary of State Office, said state law doesn't require counties to verify signatures.

"We think it's a good idea," he said. "And we've proposed legislation, but it hasn't passed."

Some of the larger counties, such as Sedgwick, have scanners that can verify signatures of mail-ballots with registration signatures. Other counties may do it visually.

In any case, the target of the ID laws is those who go the polls.

Tokaji, the Ohio State University law professor, said that in the "relatively rare instances" where there is voter fraud, it's almost always done with a mail-in ballot.

"If the concern is really about voter fraud," he said, "then we're looking in the wrong place. It's sort of like you lost your contact lenses one place, but you look somewhere else because the light is better."

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