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Voter ID: The Landscape for 2009

As we noted in the Dispatch a couple weeks ago, despite a dearth of recent successes and mounting fiscal crises in most states, rightwing voter ID legislation designed to suppress voter turnout continues to be pressed around the country.  So far this year at least 17 states have seen bills introduced to institute or enhance ID requirements for voting or registration (AL, CO, GA, IN, MD, MN, MS, MO, NY, OK, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, WY).  It appears we now know enough to predict the landscape of the voter ID battles in this legislative session.

Old Battlegrounds Endure: For the most part the same states where this issue was out front last year will continue to be the focus of voter ID proponents.  It is already clear that Texas and Oklahoma will retain their positions near the top of states that make this a priority issue.  Oklahoma now has very conservative majorities controlling both chambers, giving confidence to proponents that this will be their year in that state.  Oklahoma just barely failed to pass legislation last session when opponents attached pro-voter amendments that killed the bill and is the closest to a "sure thing" that ID proponents have in 2009. 

In Tennessee, while there is a strong push for the legislation, there are still concerns over the cost of the proposed photo ID requirement given the state's fiscal problems. One state that may see the issue hit a new roadblock is Missouri, which just elected a Democratic governor.  Much of the frantic push for a proof-of-citizenship law in that state last session was generated by the expectation that the GOP would lose the governorship, putting a voter ID bill out of reach.  Filling out the ranks of states where the issue will be front and center are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Opening Moves and Prospects:  In Texas, having been frustrated in attempts over the past two years to enact photo-ID legislation, GOP Senators chose the Texas version of the "nuclear option" and have exempted the voter ID bill from the two-thirds majority requirement observed in the Texas Senate, which has caused great acrimony and could backfire among moderate legislators.  A strong coalition of progressive advocates and legislators are working furiously against the measure.  As Sen. Rodney Ellis, a leader in those efforts, argues, "supporters of [voter ID bills] continue to throw charges, anecdotal evidence and rhetoric around, but cannot point to one single case of voter impersonation.  Those of us opposed, however can cite case after case of voter intimidation and suppression."

Mississippi is replaying the dance it did last year with the Senate quickly moving forward to pass a bill, while House Democrats are willing to pass a more modest, non-photo-ID requirement, but have also added early voting to their bill.  The GOP, led on this issue by Sec. of State Hoseman, has rejected this compromise. Further complicating matters for voter ID proponents, Senators amended their bill to exempt people born before 1945, causing the sponsor to recommit the bill for consideration after it had been passed.  In Alabama, the Attorney General included voter ID in his criminal justice program package, but an Associated Press whip count found just less than majority support in both houses of the legislature with a substantial minority opposed.

Legal Challenge to Georgia Law Fails:  A three judge panel for the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals rejected the challenge against Georgia's government-issued photo ID law.  There are two proof-of-citizenship bills and one to require a birth certificate for voter registration introduced in Georgia so far this session.

Measures Defeated: Two states have quickly defeated voter ID bills in committee - Colorado and, surprisingly, Wyoming where opponents gave the sponsor of the legislation what he called "a beating."  The pugilists included the Wyoming County Clerks Association and the Sec. of State's top elections official, who warned that the state's high turnout would go "down the tubes" if the bill passed.  

Additionally, the Chair of the Government Operations Committee in Minnesota has announced that a bill will be considered there, but passage is not likely.  The bills are also "DOA" in heavily Democratic New York, Maryland, and Rhode Island, though rare support from a Democratic Sec. of State combined with that of the Republican governor in Rhode Island perhaps adds a question mark to that state.

Trend on Proof-of Citizenship Bills:  While progressives had some fears that proof-of-citizenship bills would constitute a second wave of voter ID legislation this session, so far that does not appear to be the case.  We are aware of only four states that have proof-of-citizenship legislation introduced - CO, GA, MO, and TN. Troublingly, passage can't be ruled out in three of the four states.

No Big Shifts Appear Likely: While a handful of states are in danger of passing voter ID enhancements this session, only one state - Mississippi - seems likely to institute an ID requirement for the first time.  This suggests that growth of voter ID laws has stabilized, with over 20 states rejecting the idea that voter ID serves the public interest.