Six weeks before Election Day, states across the country are still wrestling over new voting laws.
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court has thrown a tough new voter ID law back to a lower court.
In Wisconsin, two state courts have blocked a similar law.
And Monday, a panel of federal judges will hear closing arguments on South Carolina’s new ID law that requires voters to have photo identification at the polls.
They’re among 17 states which, citing voting integrity, have passed ID laws or other measures that could impact the election. Critics say they could suppress turnout by discouraging some voters – especially seniors and minorities – from voting.
But it’s the absence of such a law in North Carolina that has become an issue in the state’s gubernatorial race, offering a sharp contrast between Democrat Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory.
Last year, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a bill that would have required voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed it.
If elected, McCrory said he would sign a similar bill.
“You need to protect the integrity of the voting system,” McCrory said. “I don’t want Chicago politics to come to North Carolina.”
Dalton has vowed to veto an ID bill.
“Walter Dalton has supported measures to require ID to register to vote and to provide ID at the polls for first-time voters who register by mail,” spokesman Schorr Johnson said. “What he does not support is requiring photo ID at the polls because it could disenfranchise legal voters, especially seniors and rural voters.”
Voting battles have played out on many fronts.
Clashes over need for ID
Advocates argue that voter ID would ensure against fraud. Though few cases of actual voting fraud have surfaced, they say it’s because nobody’s looked hard enough.
“If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it,” McCrory says. “Nobody’s looking.”
Jay DeLancy calls voter ID a “no-brainer.”
“You’d never get on an airplane without providing an ID,” he said. “Why should voting be any different?”
DeLancy directs the Voter Integrity Project. The group, an offshoot of True the Vote, a national effort that challenges voter registration lists, identified nearly 30,000 N.C. voters who it claimed were possibly dead but still listed on voting rolls.
But state election officials told The (Raleigh) News and Observer that they were already reviewing most of those names, and that more than one-third of them were already listed as inactive – meaning their were on track to be removed from the voter rolls.
“People are concerned about voter fraud, but we are not finding evidence of (such fraud),” said Veronica Degraffenreid, director of voter registration voting and absentee voting at the N.C. Board of Elections. “The Voter Integrity Project has not brought forth any information to show that someone is voting in the name of another, and I think citizens in North Carolina need to be aware of that.”
Critics say an ID law could make it hard for an estimated 450,000 North Carolinians without a valid driver’s license or government-issued ID. And they say an ID law would affect mostly seniors, minorities and students.
And in North Carolina, a state Barack Obama won by just 14,000 votes in 2008, keeping even a small number of voters away could make a big difference.
“The same way they’re using technology to target voters, they’re using laws to exclude voters in a targeted way,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that fought the ID law.
He said part of the rationale for having such a law “is the recognition that the election is so tight, being settled by a fraction of a percent.”
Democrats point to statements from Republicans, such as the majority leader of the Pennsylvania legislature, who said voter ID “is gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state.”
Other GOP targets
Last year North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers considered other voting changes.
One bill would have eliminated straight-ticket voting, a method that helped Democrats in 2008. Another bill would have shortened the early-voting period. That measure passed the House, but stalled in the Senate. Early voting starts Oct. 18 this year.
In 2008 Obama won early voting in North Carolina while Republican John McCain won the Election Day vote.
Early balloting has been an issue in Ohio, where a federal judge blocked an effort to shorten the early-voting period.
According to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which has fought what it considers restrictive voting laws around the country, 17 states have passed laws that could impact this year’s election. The states involved account for nearly 80 percent of the electoral votes required to win the White House.
The Center’s Diana Kasdan, said “all of these laws make a difference in one way or another.”
But whether they’ll make enough to change the presidential election is another question.
“I’m not going to say there’s no effect,” says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “But unless we have another 2000 ( election which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court), I don’t think many people will cite voter ID laws as the critical factor in selecting a president.”