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Beyond 2012: Are voter ID laws here to stay?

Suevon Lee

Voter ID laws were one of the most contentious issues of the past election season. Proponents insisted IDs should be required at polling places in order to thwart fraud. But there has been little evidence of such fraud and Democrats argued that the laws were meant to suppress voters.

The impact of the laws on this past election isn’t clear. But one thing is clear: There are still pushes for the laws in many states.

So what happens next?

We’ve rounded up the places that could see voter ID in future elections, the status of laws still pending and what effect, if any, this year’s pushback against voter ID will have going forward.

Just to refresh, which states actually have photo ID laws?

Four states require voters to present a valid form of photo identification in order to cast a regular, not provisional, ballot: Indiana, Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee. The latter two phased in the law just this year; Indiana has had it since 2006 and Georgia since 2008.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, battleground for one of the fieriest disputes over the issue this year, required poll workers to request ID from voters — though voters had no obligation to present one.

And New Hampshire permitted voters without photo ID to still cast a regular ballot, as long as they signed a form affirming they were who they said they were.

So, there weren’t actually many places in the country where photo IDs were required to vote?

Correct. Due largely to court rulings and robust opposition from the Justice Department, newly passed voter ID laws didn’t play nearly as big a role in the election this year as they otherwise might have. (In Minnesota, a ballot proposing voter ID was defeated after failing to get majority support.)

Could that change next year?

Yes. South Carolina and Pennsylvania have both passed voter ID laws. Judges suspended them for the past election, ruling there was too little time to implement the new law without the risk of disenfranchising voters. But the laws will be in effect next time around.

Pennsylvania’s voter ID law is set to take effect in time for the state’s May 2013 local primaries.

In other states, it isn’t so clear.

After its voter ID law was rejected by federal judges in August, Texas pledged to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That appeal may have to wait, though, until the Court rules on the constitutional merits of a special provision of the Voting Rights Act next June.

Voter ID laws in Mississippi and Alabama are also on hold, awaiting federal review.

Where else have lawmakers expressed interest in voter ID laws?

In lots of states. A Montana state representative has proposed a bill that would restrict valid voter ID to Montana driver’s licenses, state ID cards for non-drivers and tribal ID cards. (Not even passports would qualify.)

Wisconsin’s incoming state assembly leader and Missouri Republicans want to push through voter ID laws via constitutional amendment. Iowa’s secretary of state, who’s been aggressive about targeting voter fraud, is also still pushing for an ID law.

In North Carolina, the newly elected Republican governor has voiced support for a voter ID law to “protect the integrity of the voting system.”

“I don’t want Chicago politics to come to North Carolina,” incoming Gov. Pat McCrory told the Charlotte Observer shortly before the election.

In Nevada, Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller doesn’t want to actually require voters to bring photo identification to the polls, but proposes connecting the state’s voter rolls with photos from the state Department of Motor Vehicles so a poll worker can compare a voter name with an image.

Now that the election is over, how many instances of voter fraud have we actually seen?

There have been a handful of reports, most of which have arisen from a basic misunderstanding or a deliberate attempt to commit an infraction to prove a point.

Is there any evidence that voter ID laws suppress minority turnout as critics charge?

It’s still not clear.

“We don’t know any more than we did before,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who specializes in elections. “It’s too early to put the data together even. Any change in requirements relating to voter registration and access typically has a change by one or two percentage points. When you’re talking about that size, it’s very hard to tease out the data.”

Reuters reports that in states that have had the law on the books for a few years — Indiana and Georgia — turnout and registration actually increased after the laws took effect. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also notes that turnout among black and Hispanic voters in Georgia increased from 2006 to 2010.)

But there are important variables to consider: 2008 was also a historic presidential election that drove up voter turnout around the country.

Furthermore, Georgia, unlike other strict photo ID law states, issues a free photo ID for those who don’t have one. (Reuters reports that about 28,648 such voter cards were distributed since 2006.)

Justin Levitt, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School, said it will still take several more election cycles before the impact of voter ID laws can be discerned, just “to sort the turnout effect of ID laws from all of the other factors” — like campaign spending, the weather and choice of candidates.

“There’s very little that we can learn about the effect from the election results or turnout figures this cycle, because the strictest laws weren’t generally in effect,” he told ProPublica.

Can we expect to see another wave of legislation over voter ID laws?

Perhaps, but it’s too early to tell.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 30 states introduced some form of voter ID legislation in both 2011 and 2012.

“What we don’t know is if from 2013 to 2014, we’re going to see that same phenomenon at that same level,” said Ned Foley, a professor of election law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Election Day concerns that affect larger swathes of voters may eventually eclipse the push for such laws.

“Other issues of election administration are likely to reemerge as becoming more critical, such as long lines, or voting machines that are about to fail,” said MIT’s Stewart. Those are issues “felt by a great number of voters, regardless of race or party.”

Still, voter ID laws are going to be an ongoing issue.

“In the short term, these ID bills might be submerged,” said Stewart. “But I don’t think they’re going to go away forever.”