TOPICS > Politics

Waging a Battle Over Voter ID Laws

March 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Across the country, voting rights activists including Rock the Vote have campaigned against a surge of state voter identification laws, requiring individuals to provide a photo ID before they cast a ballot. Gwen Ifill and guests discuss the latest move by a Wisconsin judge and the U.S. Justice Department blocking a Texas law.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: tough new measures mandating that voters produce photo identification.

Gwen Ifill has our debate.

GWEN IFILL: A Wisconsin judge and the U.S. Justice Department moved separately this week to derail two new state voter identification laws. Since last year, eight state legislatures have moved to tighten access to the polls by requiring voters to show photo I.D. before they cast a ballot.

Overall, 16 states have passed or enacted a variety of poll access laws. The Justice Department said the Texas law passed last year could disenfranchise Hispanic voters. And two judges in Wisconsin declared that state’s newer law amounted to voter suppression. But coast to coast, the debate is just beginning to heat up.

For an update on the ongoing dispute, we turn to Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, and Hans Von Spakovsky, manager of the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation. He served in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration.

Welcome to you both.

Hans Von Spakovsky, I would like to ask you whether this change we’re watching, this shift we’re watching in this debate is part of a concerted effort that we should be following.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY, Heritage Foundation: Well, I think there’s a concerted effort on the part of the Justice Department to try to keep these voter I.D. laws from going in place.

I think they’re doing that without the facts to support it and also they are ignoring legal precedent, their own legal precedent and in fact court decisions that have found that these kind of voter I.D. laws are not discriminatory.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying that the concerted effort is not on the part of the legislature to enact these laws, but on the part of the federal government to stop them?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Yes, I think on the part of federal government.

Now, we do know states are interested in this. But while many Republican legislatures have passed these kind of requirements, we know that in Rhode Island, Democrats passed it. And in Kansas, also a majority of Democrats voted for final passage of the voter I.D. law in Kansas.

GWEN IFILL: Wendy Weiser, why do you think this is happening right now?

WENDY WEISER, Brennan Center for Justice: Well, what we have seen this year is by far the most significant rollback of voting rights legislatively in decades, since the Jim Crow era. And right now, in the past couple of weeks, it looks like the tide may be beginning to turn.

The Department of Justice has now objected to several of these laws. We see some state courts pushing back as well. And even some legislatures are now bucking at passing new restrictions. So we hope that this now augers a real victory for democracy and a turn in that really regressive tide we’ve seen this year.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Wendy Weiser, every time we have this conversation, we have to ask this question. What’s wrong asking someone to prove who they are at the polls?

WENDY WEISER: Oh, there’s certainly absolutely nothing wrong with asking people to show that they are who they say they are at the polls.

What’s wrong with these laws is that they are significantly more restrictive than that. They asked for I.D.s that 10 to 11 percent of Americans, voting-eligible Americans, simply do not have. So that’s really what the dispute’s about, and not only that, but the data are now coming in that these really significantly harm minority voters in the states that have passed these.

In Texas, for example, it was found that Hispanic voters were more than twice as likely than non-Hispanic voters to lack these forms of government-issued photo I.D.s. And these laws also cherry-pick the kinds of I.D.s that are allowed. You can vote in Texas using a concealed handgun carry license, but not using a state employment I.D. or a state student I.D.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Von Spakovsky to respond to that.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Well, she’s just wrong about the data.

In fact, the data from states like Georgia, like Indiana, which have had photo I.D. laws in place now for more than six years, shows that it doesn’t suppress the vote. In fact, the turnout of African-Americans and Hispanics, for example, in Georgia went up significantly in the state in the two federal elections held since then.

And in the lawsuits filed by organizations like the Brennan Center, the NAACP and others against the Georgia and Indiana laws, those lawsuits were thrown out because the courts found that they were, one, not discriminatory, and, two, because the plaintiffs couldn’t produce anyone who would be unable to vote because of these voter I.D. laws.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.

Let me ask Mr. Von Spakovsky about this.

What is the problem that these new laws are attempting to fix?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: They prevent a series of things, for example, impersonation fraud at the polls, voting under fictitious voter registration names or people who have already died, voting by illegal aliens. And there’s been plenty of cases of people registering and voting.

Also, they can deter individuals from voting who are registered in more than one state.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Weiser, are those — are these problems which are worth fixing?

WENDY WEISER: You know, certainly, voter fraud is a serious crime. And when it occurs, it should be prosecuted to its full extent.

Fortunately, voter fraud and the kinds that are targeted by these laws is so extraordinarily rare that Americans are more likely to be struck by lightening than to commit that kind of voter fraud.

And some of the problems that Mr. Von Spakovsky has mentioned, again, while really rare, are not at all addressed by voter I.D. laws. Voting by non-citizens, for example, is not at all addressed by asking somebody to show a driver’s license, when non-citizens can obtain a driver’s license. And the real problem here is. . .

GWEN IFILL: I’ll give you a chance to respond.

GWEN IFILL: But finish your thought, Ms. Weiser.

WENDY WEISER: Oh, thank you.

But the real problem here is that there’s a huge, a really breathtaking number of eligible citizens who do not have the kinds of I.D. that these new state laws, which are much more restrictive than what we have seen in the past, are asking for.

GWEN IFILL: Okay.

Let me go to Mr. Von Spakovsky now.

WENDY WEISER: Yes.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: I’m sorry, but photo I.D. laws can prevent illegal aliens from registering and voting.

And in states like Utah, which put a notation on driver’s licenses issued to legal non-citizens that they are not a citizen, it can prevent them from voting. These are measures that the American people overwhelmingly support and think is a good idea, and do not believe is a problem.

The huge numbers, that — look, the experience of states with this shows that is not true. South Carolina, where the Justice Department just objected, they found that only about 1 percent of registered voters don’t already have a photo I.D. in the state, and those individuals can easily get the free one that South Carolina and every other state provides to people.

GWEN IFILL: Where does the battle move next, Ms. Weiser? We see in Alabama and Mississippi, where obviously they voted this week, that they also are subject to the same rules Texas is. Is that where the next challenge happens?

WENDY WEISER: Well, right now, there are really challenges going on across the country.

We are awaiting a ruling from a federal court in Florida, for example, against a law there that has seriously cut back on voting rights, making it virtually impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives, making — cutting back on early voting, eliminating Sunday early voting, which was used really successfully by African-American and Latino churches in past elections.

That’s really the next decision we are awaiting.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Von Spakovsky, where do you see this heading next?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Oh, I think the very next stage after photo I.D. is going to be states putting in requirements that you provide prove of citizenship when you register to vote, to also try to solve that problem.

We already have three states that have put it in, including Georgia. And the Justice Department found it to be not discriminatory. And I think other states are going to be adding that provision as their next step in trying to secure elections.

GWEN IFILL: Hans Von Spakovsky from the Heritage Foundation, Wendy Weiser from the Brennan Center, thank you both so much.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Thank you.

WENDY WEISER: Thank you.