Bill requiring photo ID to vote is before House

September 20, 2006|By Nicole Gaouette | Nicole Gaouette,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A measure requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls is expected to pass the House today, the latest example of the push toward stricter scrutiny of citizenship status in the United States.

The legislation is one of a series of tightly focused bills crafted by House Republican leaders who want to strengthen border security and crack down on illegal immigration. It is described by its sponsor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, as a safeguard against voter fraud.

The proposed Federal Election Integrity Act follows a spate of state-level laws passed this year that require ID or proof of citizenship to vote. One such law was declared unconstitutional yesterday by a Georgia judge, who said the state's new photo ID requirements infringed on voter rights.

Democrats say that the move to impose a national photo ID requirement is part of a larger Republican effort to discourage participation by low-income and minority voters likely to back Democratic candidates - a charge GOP lawmakers strongly deny.

In today's House debate, Democrats intend to argue that the bill's requirement that voters provide proof of citizenship starting in 2010 would create a potentially expensive hurdle for some that effectively amounted to a "poll tax."

The Senate is not likely to take up the measure this session, but House Republicans say they expect to keep pressing and make the issue a congressional priority next year.

"It's not going to go into oblivion," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Administration Committee that produced the bill.

He defended the need for tighter election laws and said countries such as Canada, Germany and Britain require photo ID to vote. "There is, I believe, increasing fraud in voting in the U.S.," he said.

The bill would require Americans to show a government- issued photo ID to take part in federal elections starting in November 2008 - the next presidential election. By 2010, voters would have to present a photo ID that can be obtained only by providing proof of citizenship.

Ehlers said the bill builds on the REAL ID act, a law enacted last year that takes effect in 2008 and requires applicants to prove legal residency in the U.S. to obtain a driver's license. Under the law, new licenses will indicate whether the holder is a citizen or legal resident.

Six states have passed laws this year tightening identification requirements at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of the 24 states that ask voters to bring some form of identification to the polls on Election Day, seven of them - including Georgia - have passed legislation requiring photo IDs.

In making their case for a national law, Republican leaders cite a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed 81 percent of those surveyed support a photo ID requirement at the polls.

Joining Democrats in opposing the bill are several civil rights groups.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Administration panel, said there is little evidence to show that voter fraud is a serious problem.

One witness at a House immigration hearing this summer offered anecdotal evidence of a Brazilian and a Norwegian voting in Texas elections. But comprehensive statistics about voter fraud have not been compiled at the state or federal level.

A study by the League of Women Voters examined all Ohio elections in 2002 to 2004 and found that 0.00004 percent of those who went to the polls were ineligible to do so. And only 86 people have been convicted of federal crimes related to election fraud out of 196,139,871 ballots cast nationwide since October 2002, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We do not have a large percentage of people violating our election laws," said Millender-McDonald.

She contended that the bill could disenfranchise some lower-income Americans because they might decide they could not afford to obtain the documents necessary to meet the bill's requirement for proof of citizenship. Others could be discouraged by difficulties they might encounter obtaining such proof, she said.

Even voters with means might end up barred from the polls, Millender-McDonald said, citing the experience of Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who last month was unable to get a government-issued photo ID that, under a contested Missouri law, is required to vote.

Skelton didn't know where his birth certificate was and arrived at a state licensing bureau without his passport - the only documents the office would accept. Local officials recognized him but would not accept the congressional photo identification he uses to vote in the House.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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