From boarding an airplane to buying booze to cashing a check, getting out a photo ID merits hardly a shrug among the assaults of modern life. Not so when it comes to voting.
In the few states that ask for photo identification at the polls, it has sparked anger and controversy.
Now, Republicans are pushing proposals in Sacramento and Washington to require IDs, citizenship checks and more of voters. Not since 1965, when Dixiecrats lost a fight to retain literacy tests and poll taxes, has the voting-rights debate been so polarized.
Republicans argue that registration and voting, done largely under an honor system in California and other states, need to be protected from real and potential fraud. They point to the 1996 election in Orange County in which Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) won an upset victory over nine-term congressman Robert Dornan amid allegations that noncitizens cast ballots.
Democrats and voting rights advocates say the amount of fraud is insignificant and that the GOP really wants to suppress voting by minorities, the poor, immigrants and others who favor Democratic candidates, erasing the decades-old commitment to expanding ballot access.
In California, you can register without showing proof of residence, citizenship or birthplace, and precinct workers generally do not ask voters for identification of any kind.
While voting laws vary from state to state, it is federal law that limits what states can do.
In the next few weeks, the House Oversight Committee is expected to craft a comprehensive bill that would alter federal voting laws, said GOP leaders.
This Republican "ballot integrity plan" would rewrite the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the so-called motor-voter law that created universal mail-in registration.
"Both measures are widely credited with opening up the ballot," said Mary Brooks, national lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, which opposes the GOP proposals. "Today, 73% of the voting-age population is registered."
The proposals being considered by the House committee would either mandate nationwide--or allow states to require--photo IDs, Social Security numbers or naturalization numbers, and proof of citizenship for all voters; eliminate registration by mail, and purge from voting rolls people who fail to cast a ballot in several consecutive federal elections.
Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Long Beach) is the author of one bill that would allow citizenship checks of registered voters. "What this is all about is very simple," he said. "The American people believe that only citizens should vote."
The list of groups opposing the GOP measures is large, including labor unions, advocates for the disabled and church groups, the ACLU, the NAACP, Latino rights organizations and others.
They argue against the proposals, saying that the real national scandal is too few people voting. These groups say that requiring proof of citizenship would end mail-in registration and that allowing states to tighten voting rules would open the way for discrimination.
"Why are we having this issue now?" asks Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project based in Montebello. "Because Latinos are registering and voting, and extremists among Republicans are seeking to diminish Latino registration. . . . It is not fooling anyone."
Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who served as that state's top elections officer, said GOP leaders know "how to win elections and one way . . . is to intimidate voters and suppress voter turnout."
Republicans bridle at such suggestions. They argue there is nothing wrong with making it harder to cast a ballot, if that ensures that everyone who votes is eligible.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is the author of a bill that would require proof of citizenship at registration and permit states to require a photo ID of voters.
"The reality is, you would have to go through a little effort to prove who you are," he said. "Is it worth it in a free society? Yes."
The history of voting laws in the United States is a story of exclusion. Originally, the franchise was limited in most states to white men who were property holders. The property requirement was largely eliminated by the 1820s.
Prejudice, power and politics played roles in who got the right to vote. In Pennsylvania and New York in the 1820s, voting rights were taken away from free black citizens, at the same time Irish immigrants who were not citizens were being allowed to vote, said history professor Gordon Wood of Brown University.
"Mainly, it was the Democratic Party that was doing that because blacks were voting Federalist and Whig, and the Irish immigrants tended to vote Democratic," he said. It took the Civil War and a constitutional amendment in 1870 to give blacks the right to vote. By the turn of the century, the states of the old Confederacy had fashioned subterfuges to purge blacks from civic life and reduce voting by poor whites.
It was not until the Civil Rights movement that the nation committed itself to universal suffrage with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
That law and its amendments in 1975 banned literacy tests and other discriminatory practices, provided severe penalties for depriving anyone of the right to vote and required ballots to be printed in languages other than English. It also sent federal examiners to register black voters in the South and to Texas, Arizona and four counties in California to remedy discrimination against Latinos.
In 1993, Democrats in Congress teamed with President Clinton to pass the National Voter Rights Act. The law requires states to permit universal mail-in registration as well as registration at public agencies, such as welfare and motor vehicle departments--hence the name "motor voter."
The measure was contested by many Republicans in Congress and at the state level. Gov. Pete Wilson unsuccessfully challenged the law, calling it an unfunded federal mandate.
Many Republican leaders remain critical of it, particularly its failure to provide for a citizenship check.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the committee that will write the new bill, believes motor voter should be changed. A bipartisan version of the bill was "hijacked by Democrats" in 1993 and "perverted" by expanding opportunities to register people who tend to vote Democratic, while "removing the ability to make sure the rolls were accurate," he said.
Within the framework of motor voter and the Voting Rights Act, state laws vary widely. Minnesota and New Hampshire are among half a dozen states that permit same-day registration and voting. North Dakota has no registration at all. Louisiana, Georgia and Hawaii ask voters to show a photo ID. A 1974 federal law barred requiring Social Security numbers of voters, though seven states already doing it were allowed to continue.
California's laws are among the most relaxed. Thomas and Secretary of State Bill Jones say the current honor system is open to abuse. Both cite as proof the 1996 Orange County election of Sanchez.
After a 14-month inquiry, Congress turned down a challenge to her victory, but said it had found that 748 people, including 624 noncitizens, had illegally cast votes. Democrats dispute the figures.
Jones supports naturalization and Social Security numbers on registration documents, as well as photo IDs at the polls.
But opponents of changing federal law are equally adamant.
Joanne Wright of Project Vote in New York, which registers low-income and minority voters, said the GOP plan is no small matter to poor people who may not have birth certificates, citizenship papers or photo IDs handy.