Thursday, January 22, 2009

Voter ID bill sinks

Burdensome HB 153 threatened voting rights

Requiring Wyoming voters to show a current, government-certified photo identification card when they come to the polls would send the state’s nation-leading turnout numbers “down the tubes,” a top state elections official told a House committee Thursday.

The testimony of Peggy Nighswonger, elections director from the Secretary of State’s Office, combined with objections from the Wyoming County Clerks’ Association, several individual clerks, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, and the ESPC convinced the House Corporations Committee to vote 3-6 against sending the bill to the House floor.

“I haven’t taken a beating like that in a long time,” primary sponsor Rep. Steve Harshman said as the meeting broke up.

Rep. Harshman’s bill, HB 153 Vote Identification, imposed significant barriers to voters in an effort to prevent voter fraud. It was modeled closely after an Indiana law that recently survived a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rep. Harshman told the committee.

But no one knows of any voter fraud in Wyoming. Uinta County Clerk Lynne Fox, representing the county clerks association, said the group discussed the matter during its meeting this week. Of the19 counties represented at the meeting, not one clerk could recall any attempt by someone to vote fraudulently, Ms. Fox said.

Rare as mortal lightning strikes

The Brennan Center for Justice has found that in-person voter fraud is “exceedingly rare.”

“Legitimate cases of fraud that could be addressed by a photo ID requirement are proven to occur approximately as often as Americans are struck and killed by lightning,” the center’s director Michael Waldman has written.

The ESPC cited this report to support our argument that the Voter ID bill was a solution seeking a problem.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the bill was its requirement that people voting for the first time in a federal election not only would have to show a qualifying photo ID, but would have to show poll judges “a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check or other government document which shows his name and address.”

Parents of children reaching voting age know how difficult it is to instill good voting habits. It’s not easy for them to get through the registration process and to the polls, let alone remember to bring a photo ID and supporting documentation. Many students and other young adults would have trouble producing the utility bills or check stubs, since they share households, occupy rentals that may or may not cover utilities, and rarely, if ever, make a copy of a paycheck, and move frequently. Even their driver’s license is unlikely to show their current address.

Jennifer Horvath of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that many types of student, tribal and federal photo IDs do not have an expiration date, as required by HB 153, so they would not meet the letter of the proposed law.

Confronted at the polls with that problem, the bill would have allowed voters to cast a provisional ballot, then somehow get to the county clerk’s office with adequate proof of identity by the close of business the following day -- not an easy task for many people who live in counties where the county seat may be more than 75 miles from their polling place.

“It’s a question of whether you can vote on a particular day,” Ms. Horvath said.

Obtaining the required types of ID would force poor people and others to bear the costs of obtaining a passport or getting a driver’s license, she added.

Voters can get an ID from the state for $10, and the bill outlined situations under which the fee could be waived. That did not satisfy Rep. Mary Hales of Casper.

“You are getting awfully close to a poll tax,” she said.

Ms. Fox noted the measure would impose heavy burdens on poll judges. The bill exempted indigents and voters who have a religious objection to being photographed. Poll workers would have to make those determinations.

But they are busy enough with same-day registration, which requires “absolutely correct” recording of information by the judges.

“It’s a problem,” she said.

Breaks in two on way to bottom

Worse, both Ms. Fox and Ms. Nighswonger noted, was the potential that the documentation standards impose a residency requirement. “That, in effect, undoes election day registration,” Fox said.

Ms. Nighswonger explained that Wyoming’s same-day registration law enabled it to achieve a waiver exempting it from many of the federal requirements in the federal Help America Vote Act. Indiana did not have that waiver, she said.

Rep. Harshman said he did not want to do away with same-day registration and noted he had asked the secretary of state if he had problems with the bill.

“I went to the guy in charge,” he said, and did not hear this objection.

In the end, Reps. Kermit Brown of Laramie and David Miller of Riverton were joined by Chairman Pete Illoway as the only votes for the bill.

Reps. Bernadine Craft, Rock Springs, Ross Diercks, Lusk, Tom Lubnau, Gillette, Mary Hales, Tim Stubson, Casper, and Dan Zwonitzer, Cheyenne, voted against the measure.