GAO Report in Hand, Dems Step Up Voter ID Offensive

With less than four weeks to go until Election Day, Democrats are stepping up their public offensive against state voter laws — even pulling the Government Accountability Office into their fight to claim voters are being disenfranchised by GOP efforts.

The protestations from members of Congress may do little to keep voters from having to flash ID at the polls, but set up a post-election landscape where laws and perhaps even results are challenged on claims of voter intimidation and exclusion.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) requested a comprehensive report on an “alarming number” of new state voter laws. At more than 130 pages long, the GAO report was turned into the senators late last week, as well as the Justice Department and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The GAO was asked to compile state identification requirements for all eligible voters (including for registering to vote, voting at the polls on Election Day, and absentee voting), which documents satisfy ID requirements, and what happens if voters don’t have the proper identification in time to vote.

The senators also requested information on absentee voting and early voting statutes, as well as state requirements relating to third-party voter registration organizations.

“Voter identification requirements vary in flexibility, in the number and type of acceptable documents allowed, and in the alternatives available for verifying identity if a voter does not have an acceptable form of identification. There is variety in how state laws reflect HAVA’s registration identification requirements, and some states have adopted substantive requirements that are in addition to those provided for in federal law, such as proof of citizenship,” the report said, referring to the Help America Vote Act passed after the 2000 election recount debacle.

Thirty-one states have requirements for all voters to show ID at the polls on Election Day, and 12 have ID or notarization requirements for absentee ballots. North Dakota, which does not require registration to vote, and certain states that allow election-day registration at polling places are exempt from the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which paired registration opportunities with obtaining a driver’s license or with offices that provide public assistance.

Six states — Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wyoming — have voter registration identification requirements in addition to those provided for under federal law in effect for next month’s election, the report notes.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have no ID requirements on Election Day. Of the 31 states requiring ID when a voter comes to the polls, 11 mandate a photo ID (three of those states don’t even require that it’s government-issued) whereas the other 20 allow documents such as a Social Security card, utility bill, or bank statement.

Twenty-seven states and D.C. allow voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse; an additional six states allow early voting. Those states vary on whether early voting is available on the weekends, during business hours only, or if it’s left up to local discretion.

The report outlines the 21 states that passed laws over the past decade making “substantive changes” to voter ID requirements.

“Once states have had voter identification requirements in place for all eligible voters, they have made few substantive changes to the processes for voters who do not present acceptable identification on Election Day,” the GAO report states. “For example, with respect to the available options that states provide for voters at the polls who do not have acceptable identification, about two-thirds of the states have not changed whether a particular option is available since the time that HAVA was enacted or the state established voter identification requirements.”

The senators asked for details on “any prosecutions or convictions for voter impersonation fraud within each state during the previous 10 years,” but the GAO said there was a lack of data to detail such information.

“We must make it easier, not harder, for poor and working people to vote and to participate in the political process,” Sanders said. “There is no credible evidence of voter fraud having had any impact whatsoever on the outcome of an election in recent history. Using unfounded scare tactics and isolated cases to weaken the public’s faith in elections and to disenfranchise millions of eligible voters is reprehensible.”

The report came two days after a Pennsylvania judge partly upheld the state’s voter ID law, ruling that voters wouldn’t have to show identification at the polls this election but the law would be allowed to go into full effect next year.

The Pennsylvania House Dems tweeted today, “They will ask, but you do NOT have to show #VoterID to cast a ballot. Period.”

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) praised the Pennsylvania decision as “recognizing that requiring citizens to obtain a voter ID places an undue and excessive burden on eligible voters, mostly from minority communities, that is difficult to overcome.”

“I would also like to commend the people of Pennsylvania who, in spite of the difficulties reported, waited hours at local DMVs to complete the documents required to ensure they will be prepared vote this fall. Their commitment to exercising their right in the face of efforts to take it away is a testament to the plight of Americans who came before them, bled and died so no one would be turned away at the polls,” Cleaver added.

The GAO will be issuing another report next year analyzing the laws’ effects on Election 2012, including a state-by-state analysis of the cost and accessibility of documents required to register to vote and obtain voter ID, along with data on the race, gender and socioeconomic status of voters affected.

“I hope GAO follows up quickly with the review we have requested of alleged in-person voter fraud, the justification used by states in erecting these new barriers affecting millions of voters despite an almost total absence of evidence that it has impacted any election,” said Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. “As we saw in our recent Judiciary Committee hearing looking at the impact of laws to restrict voting, we must work to protect one of the most fundamental rights Americans enjoy – the right to vote.”

But the Democrats’ 11th-hour urgency on voting laws — highlighted not just by federal reports but efforts such as the CBC’s Get Vote Ready program and CNN’s documentary this coming Sunday on whether the minority vote is being suppressed — indicates that the party is not content to make voter ID a rearview mirror issue.

“Voting is the most basic tenet of any democracy, and despite widespread public outcry state lawmakers have tried to make it harder to do,” Nelson said. “The steps taken by legislatures across the country have gone too far, as evidenced once again by the study.”

Former Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), a Democrat-turned-Republican, told National Journal last week that the laws have “unfairly and inaccurately” become “something of a flash point” in the African-American political community.

“Most people don’t walk into a bank with a fraudulent intent in mind. Most people walk into a bank to get money out of their own account, and they are exactly who they say they are,” Davis said. “But yet banks routinely ask you for an ID, even if you’re someone who’s a regular customer. It doesn’t follow to me that because you don’t have a long, documented, verifiable trail of people trying to engage in misconduct that it’s somehow wrong to ask them for ID.”

Davis said opponents of voter ID are aligning the laws to civil rights violations of the past because it’s “much easier using dramatic imagery.”

“I wonder what individuals who raise the civil-rights analogy thought about Eric Holder’s Department of Justice preclearing the Alabama voter-ID law and the Virginia voter-ID law,” he said. “Is there some suggestion that the Holder Department of Justice has some closet sympathy for voter suppression?”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, last week sent a letter to Catherine Engelbrecht, president and founder of True the Vote, asking her to provide information about the data used by the group to challenge voter registrations, the training provided to volunteers, and how True the Vote picks its battlegrounds.

“At some point, an effort to challenge voter registrations by the thousands without any legitimate basis may be evidence of illegal voter suppression. If these efforts are intentional, politically-motivated, and widespread across multiple states, they could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights,” Cummings wrote.

True the Vote called Cummings’ allegations “factually bankrupt.”

“It is both obvious and unfortunate that you are not familiar with all of the details of the mission or methods of True the Vote,” Engelbrecht wrote back. “This letter serves as an effort to coordinate a convenient meeting time in your Washington, D.C. office, during which I can brief you and your staff about our program and help dispel any misconceptions you may have.”

Cummings said on MSNBC last night that True the Vote efforts “mainly zero in on students, African-Americans, people who would normally vote Democratic.”

The congressman also alleged that the group plans to train a million poll watchers by Election Day “with the sole intent of intimidating people.”

“People should not have to go to a voting place in fear and to be harassed,” Cummings said, questioning whether True the Vote would concentrate its efforts on suburban or urban areas.