Voters in Maine, Mississippi and Washington will decide election-reform questions this November, joining a wave of 36 states that in 2011 moved to increase identification requirements, limit the early-voting period, or toughen up registration rules.
“We’ve been seeing quite a lot of legislation to strengthen voter identification laws and create voter identification laws where they don’t exist,” said Jennie Bowser, senior analyst with the National Conference on State Legislatures.
While voting reform isn’t always a partisan issue, the surge in election-related proposals has been attributed largely to the Republican Party’s success in gaining legislative majorities in 2010.
“It’s like any issue — when you gain control of the legislature after being out of power for a long time, you usually have a list of things you want to see done,” said Ms. Bowser. “I think this is a change that’s been on the list for Republicans for quite a long time, and with their new majorities, they’re able to make changes.”
The conventional wisdom is that Republicans are more interested in protecting the integrity of the process, while Democrats want to expand access to the polls. Still, there are exceptions: In Rhode Island, the Democratic legislature passed a voter-identification bill and independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed it in July.
Voter identification was the hottest election topic in the 2011 legislative session, with 20 states considering proposals to require voters to show ID. Among those was Mississippi, where a photo ID bill that failed to win passage has been resurrected on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Initiative 27 would require voters to show government-issued photo identification before casting ballots. Showing ID at the polls has become increasingly common: If approved, Mississippi would become the 14th state with a photo ID law. Another 16 states require non-photo identification.
Even so, Initiative 27 has sparked intense opposition from critics who say it will discourage low-income and minority voters. The anti-27 campaign has compared the identification requirement to the poll tax and other impediments to voting from the state’s history of racial discrimination.
They point to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City, which found that voter identification requirements could make it more difficult for as many as five million voters nationwide to cast ballots.
“These voting law changes are radical and completely unnecessary. They especially hurt those who have been historically locked out of our electoral system, like minorities, poor people, and students. Often they seem precisely targeted to exclude certain voters,” said Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.
Led by Republican state Sen. Joey Fillingane, Initiative 27’s supporters say a bigger problem is the state’s recent problem with voter fraud. They cite examples of recent elections in which ineligible or even dead voters were found to have cast ballots.
The initiative allows any voter without proper ID to obtain one free of charge from the state Department of Public Safety. The estimated cost to the taxpayers is $1.5 million.
“Those who question the motivation behind this particular initiative, they try and liken it to a poll tax or a Jim Crow voter suppression measure, and I’m just blown away by those accusations,” Mr. Fillingane told the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American. “If this passes, which I believe that it will, it will apply the same to everyone. So, how you are trying to suppress one group of people?”
Analysts predict Initiative 27 will pass easily, noting that it falls on the same ballot as two other measures likely to draw conservative voters, notably Initiative 26, the so-called “personhood” measure that says human life begins at the moment of conception.
In Maine, the issue before the voters is same-day registration. The Republican-controlled legislature approved a bill requiring voters to register at least two days before an election, instead of being allowed to register on Election Day, as Mainers had done for 38 years.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill in June, but opponents gathered 68,000 signatures in less than a month to challenge it.
Before the law was passed, Maine was one of just eight states to allow same-day voter registration. The two-day window still gives Mainers more time to register than states such as New York, which requires citizens to sign up a month before an election.
In Washington, voters will decide whether to remove from the state constitution a provision that requires voters in presidential races to have lived in the state for 60 days or longer before Election Day. The limit in other races is 30 days.
The measure, called Senate Joint Resolution 8205, is being depicted as an uncontroversial effort to clean up the state constitution. Analysts expect it to pass easily.