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Battles over federal voter-ID laws heating up in Congress

During a campaign season in which several states have approved controversial new voter-identification laws, the battle has shifted to the federal level, where competing partisan bills face off in Congress.

A group of House Democrats introduced a bill last week designed to counteract new state laws that require voters to present a government-issued photo identification card, a move they say can prevent eligible voters from casting ballots.

The bill would allow eligible voters to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity if they don't have the identification documents required by their state at their polling place.

The measure's lead sponsor, Rep. Rick Larsen, Washington Democrat, said it would give options to low-income, elderly, young and minority voters who are under threat of disenfranchisement. The legislation doesn't pre-empt any other federal law on voting.

"These [state] laws are designed in my view to intimidate and prevent U.S. citizens from casting legitimate ballots," Mr. Larsen said during a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

"The story of our country is one of extending the right to vote irrespective of race or gender. I don't think we should allow the U.S. to move backward to our past history of voter intimidation and suppression."

Thirty-three states will require voters to show an ID at the polls this November, with more than half requiring the ID to include a photo.

This year alone, voter-ID legislation was introduced in 32 states, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. That includes new proposals in 14 states, proposals to strengthen existing voter-ID laws in 10 states, and bills to amend existing laws in 10 states — many of them new voter-ID laws passed in 2011.

But Democrats say the laws were put in place simply to make the process more difficult for voters who are less likely to support Republicans, such as minorities and the poor. As evidence, Democrats cite the scant amount of documented voter fraud in the country's recent history.

Mr. Larsen, arguing that GOP-sponsored voter-ID laws are punitive, said more cases of shark attacks and exploding toilets are reported than cases of even alleged voter fraud.

The Democratic proposal contrasts with a House bill introduced in June by Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, a conservative Republican, that calls for all voters in federal elections to present a government-issued photo ID.

"Current federal law requires those voting in federal elections to be American citizens," Mr. Walsh said in a news release announcing his bill. "This long-overdue bill simply enforces that requirement and will be a huge step toward combating voter fraud in this country."

Mr. Walsh's bill calls for ballots sent by mail to include a copy of a photo ID, or the ballot may be voided. Military personnel deployed overseas would be exempt from this requirement, though almost 70,000 noncitizens enlisted in the armed forces from 1999 to 2008, according to a 2011 report by CNA, an Alexandria think tank.

Both bills have little-to-no chance of receiving a floor vote before the November elections, and neither is likely to pass Congress in the late-year lame-duck session. But supporters of the Democratic version deny it's only a symbolic effort, saying it often takes several tries for a bill to navigate the inevitable legislative and political hurdles before becoming law.

"We are the guardians of our democracy, and we've got to protect this," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland said, one of more than a dozen additional Democratic cosponsors of Mr. Larsen's bill, during the conference call. "We can't just stand by on the sidelines and act like nothing's happening."

Robert F. Bauer, chief counsel for President Obama's re-election campaign, told a University of Maryland forum last week that he doesn't think the new state voter-ID laws will have much impact on voter turnout in the fall, saving that Democrats have made "significant progress" in blunting the effects of the new laws.

But Mr. Larsen said his bill is designed to protect the integrity of elections over the long term.

"The effort isn't done to counter these [state] laws," he said. "These laws apply to elections in the future, and if we let them stand I believe you'll see the steady erosion of voting."

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