The idea of requiring photo identification at the voting booth has generated a politically charged discussion. Opposing sides of the issue claim fraud and voter disenfranchisement, but both charges are difficult to quantify.
Proposed laws that aim to require voters to provide photo identification at the polls are working their way through state governments and courts nationwide, including in Iowa and Wisconsin.
In general, Republicans back voter photo ID laws while Democrats oppose them. Republicans say the laws would help prevent voter fraud. They defend the laws as common sense and decry anyone who would stand in the way of safeguarding a legitimate electoral process. Democrats believe the laws are unnecessary given the low number of documented incidences of fraud, and they believe the laws would make it difficult for the elderly, poor, minorities and college students to cast ballots because they might not have the required identification. It's not a coincidence that those factions tend to vote Democratic.
In Iowa, Secretary of State Matt Schultz's second attempt at voter photo ID legislation was squashed in the Legislature this year. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill, but the Democratic-controlled Senate refused to debate it.
In Wisconsin, a voter ID law was passed in 2011 by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. But the law was struck down this spring by a pair of judges. One judge issued a permanent injunction of the law; that case is headed to an appeals court. The other judge issued a temporary injunction; an appeals court refused to take that case because the judge hasn't issued a decision.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states require voters to present photo identification, and five more (including Wisconsin) have voter photo ID laws that could soon go into effect.
WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY
Dave Roberts, president of the Dubuque League of Women Voters and a professor of political science, said voter fraud is a fraud unto itself. He cited an eight-year study by Barnard College professor Lori Minnite that determined voter fraud was "extremely rare." Roberts called voter fraud a "myth" and voter photo ID legislation "laughable."
"It's all part of the right-wing agenda to depress voter turnout," Roberts said.
Most county-level elections officials said they rarely deal with voter fraud. The TH spoke with officials from Dubuque, Jackson and Grant Counties, and the three could recall only two cases of fraud in a combined 40 years of service.
Tom O'Neill could recall only one instance of fraud during his 25 years as deputy commissioner of elections for Dubuque County. Even that case, O'Neill said, would not have been affected by Schultz's legislation because it involved an absentee ballot -- someone requested an absentee ballot under the name of an individual who had passed away.
"I just don't see the need," O'Neill said. "Without a valid something to point at and say we do have a problem, I don't know whether it's worth it or not."
In March, Schultz referred only nine cases of possible voter fraud to county attorneys for investigation. But Schultz called it folly to cite the low numbers because fraud is difficult to prove.
"I don't think it's a matter of 'It doesn't happen that much so we shouldn't do it.' We don't know how much it happens. That's the problem," he said. "Citizens expect their government to be proactive.
"There are tight margins in some elections, and a very few cases of cheating could change an election."
Linda Gebhard is wrapping up her first term as Grant County clerk. She said there has been only one case of fraud in Grant County during the past four years, and she believed it to be an honest mistake made by an elderly gentleman.
Gebhard, however, supports the Wisconsin law.
"You can't do much of anything these days without some kind of an ID," she said. "I had nothing against it."
Like other supporters of voter photo ID laws, Schultz refutes claims that such measures are designed to suppress voter turnout. The Iowa and Wisconsin bills both contain options for voters who do not have photo identification, and Schultz pointed to Georgia, where turnout increased from the 2004 to 2008 presidential elections after its voter photo ID law went into effect in 2007.
"Obviously, people are just throwing out those national talking points without looking at the local legislation in Iowa," Schultz said. He noted, for example, his bill allows a person with valid photo ID to attest for one voter who does not.
Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said the Wisconsin measure was made to be "as accommodating as possible."
"We did everything we could within our power to make sure that anyone who wants to vote can," Tranel said. "It's almost unreal that people try to tie this to voter suppression. That couldn't be any further from the truth."
Some are not convinced. Lynn Sutton, president of the Dubuque chapter of the NAACP, said making minorities clear another paperwork hurdle could discourage them from voting. The issue will be a major topic of discussion at the NAACP's national convention in May.
The League of Women Voters of Iowa also opposes voter photo ID laws.
"The League is opposed to any limiting of voters' rights and access to voting. Requiring photo IDs or any ID would limit that voter access," said Jean Cheever, who works in voter services for the Dubuque chapter. "Why put more restrictions where none are needed?"
TRULY PARTISAN politics?
While the issue of requiring voters to provide photo identification has divided politicians, the general public does not seem to be quite as divided -- not in Iowa, at least.
In February, the non-partisan Legacy Foundation polled 600 Iowa registered voters; 76 percent said voters should be required to show photo identification before being allowed to vote. Even 59.5 percent of Democrats favored voter photo ID laws. Not surprisingly, Republicans (85.8 percent) and non-affiliated voters (83.9) showed even stronger support for the measure.
"This is a bipartisan issue," Schultz said. "I'm hoping the Iowa Senate will recognize it."
Democratic Iowa lawmakers said they've been told voter photo ID laws are not a concern of their constituents. Tranel said he hears a different message.
"Most people I talk to are surprised they can vote without showing identification," Tranel said. "It's just common sense."
COST OF IMPLEMENTATION
With such a low number of documented fraud cases, opponents wonder whether the cost of implementing new ID laws is fiscally responsible.
According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, states seeking to adopt requirements will have to incur substantial costs -- likely into the millions of dollars per state -- and dramatically increase the cost of administering elections. Indiana adopted a voter photo ID law in 2005, and from 2005 to 2010 spent $2.2 million on voter outreach and education efforts, including $600,000 in 2010.
The events in Wisconsin became particularly expensive when the state educated voters on the new law, only to see it struck down just ahead of March's presidential primary election. The state had appropriated just less than $2 million for implementing the law. Figures detailing how much of that was spent before the judges struck down the law are unavailable.
"All our forms we had to change. We spent a lot of money updating them, getting them right. Now everything's wrong again," Gebhard said.
HOW ID LAWS HAVE
In 2011, shortly after Schultz introduced his legislation, the Iowa State Association of County Auditors conducted a study of two states -- Indiana and Florida -- that had photo ID requirements for voters. Indiana's law was implemented in 2005; Florida's in 2001.
The auditors said they conducted the study not in the interest of making a formal recommendation, but instead to learn from current laws in order to best implement one if so instructed.
According to the report, officials from Indiana said claims of disenfranchisement persist, particularly among college students. Officials said some voters were turned off by needing to travel a long distance to their nearest motor vehicle department to obtain an ID, and other voters simply walked out of polling places without voting because of the law.
On the other hand, Indiana officials also noted the law has had some positive effects, including the possible deterrence of fraud and more accurate, up-to-date voter rolls.
Based on what the Iowa auditors learned from extensive interviews with elections personnel from both states, their report made some key recommendations if a state is to implement a photo ID law. Among them:
* Develop a thorough plan for implementation.
* Make a significant financial investment in voter education.
* Provide free photo IDs and birth certificates to avoid disenfranchising voters.
* Budget for litigation expenses.
The report also made a strong recommendation that if Iowa is to adopt a voter photo ID law, the state must make an effort to close a catch-22 for voters who have neither photo ID nor a birth certificate. The problem is that a person needs a birth certificate in order to obtain a free photo ID, but needs a photo ID in order to obtain a birth certificate.
For now, voters in Iowa and Wisconsin are not required to show photo identification at the polls. Will that change in the near future? Time will tell.
Schultz said he will continue to fight for his legislation when the Iowa Legislature next convenes. If Republicans maintain control of the House and gain control of the Senate, Schultz would probably have an easier time getting his law passed.
Tranel believes the Wisconsin law's fate ultimately might rest in the hands of the state Supreme Court. Final briefs in one of the appeals cases are not due until June 18, so the law will remain repealed through the state's upcoming recall elections -- Walker and five other Republican officials face recall on June 5. It is difficult to project whether the law will be in effect for this fall's general election.
In the meantime, because it is difficult to catch voter fraud or prove the proposed measures would keep certain groups of voters from the polls, the mostly partisan debate over voter photo identification laws is sure to continue.