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House Takes Up Voter IDs

Times Staff Writer

A measure requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls is expected to pass the House today, marking another step in a push toward stricter scrutiny of citizenship status in the U.S.

The legislation is one of a series of tightly focused bills crafted by House Republican leaders who want to strengthen border security and crack down on illegal immigration. Its sponsor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), calls it a safeguard against voter fraud.

The proposed Federal Election Integrity Act follows a spate of state laws passed this year that mandate photo ID or proof of citizenship to vote. One such law was declared unconstitutional Tuesday by a Georgia judge, who said the state’s new photo ID requirements infringed on voter rights.

Democrats say that the move to impose a national photo ID requirement is part of a Republican effort to discourage participation by low-income and minority voters likely to back Democratic candidates -- a charge GOP lawmakers strongly deny.

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In today’s House debate, some Democrats intend to argue that the bill’s requirement that voters provide proof of citizenship starting in 2010 would create a hurdle for some that effectively amounted to a “poll tax.”

The Senate is not likely to take up the measure this session, but House GOP lawmakers say they expect to keep pressing and make the issue a congressional priority next year.

“It’s not going to go into oblivion,” said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Administration Committee that produced the bill.

He defended the need for tighter election laws and noted that Canada, Germany and Britain require photo IDs to vote.

“There is, I believe, increasing fraud in voting in the U.S.,” Ehlers said. He described an example of “a guy in Kentucky who always voted for himself and his dog, then he got greedy and voted three times for himself and three times for his dog.”

The bill would require Americans to show a government-issued photo ID to take part in federal elections starting in November 2008 -- the next presidential election. By 2010, voters would have to present a photo ID that could only be obtained by providing proof of citizenship.

Ehlers said the bill builds on the Real ID Act, a law enacted last year that takes effect in 2008 and requires applicants to prove legal residency in the U.S. to obtain a driver’s license. Under the law, the new licenses will indicate whether the holder is a citizen or legal resident.

“This bill anticipates people showing their Real ID driver’s license when they vote,” Ehlers said.

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California, like many states, does not require voters to show identification before casting ballots. But six states have passed laws this year tightening identification requirements at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of the 24 states that ask voters to bring identification to the polls on election day, seven of them -- including Georgia -- have passed legislation requiring photo IDs.

In making their case for a national law, Republican leaders cite a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey that showed 81% support for a photo ID requirement at the polls.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson, the ranking Democrat on the House Administration panel, said one reason she opposes the bill is that little evidence exists that voter fraud is a serious problem.

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A witness at a House immigration hearing this summer offered anecdotal evidence of a Brazilian and a Norwegian voting in Texas elections. Republicans have voiced concern about illegal immigrants voting. But comprehensive statistics about voter fraud have not been compiled at the state or federal level.

A study by the League of Women Voters examined all elections in Ohio from 2002 to 2004 and found that .00004% of those who went to the polls were ineligible to do so. And only 86 people have been convicted of federal crimes related to election fraud out of 196,139,871 ballots cast nationwide since October 2002, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We do not have a large percentage of people violating our election laws,” said Millender-McDonald.

She contended that the bill could disenfranchise lower-income Americans because they may decide they could not afford to obtain the documents necessary to meet the bill’s requirement for proof of citizenship. Others could be discouraged if they encounter difficulties obtaining such proof, she said.

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Even voters with means might end up barred from the polls, Millender-McDonald said, citing the experience of Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who last month was unable to get a government-issued photo ID that, under a contested Missouri law, is required for voters.

Skelton arrived at a state licensing bureau without his passport or birth certificate -- the only documents the office would accept. Local officials recognized him but would not accept his congressional photo identification.

Although a small fee, mainly to cover production costs, would be charged for the voter ID card, Republican leaders point out that states would be required to provide it free to those under a certain income level. But no provision is made for the cost of getting the documents required to prove citizenship.

“There are a lot of folks in rural America without birth certificates,” Millender-McDonald said. “You’re talking over 40% of seniors in the state of Georgia who do not have a form of ID, or passports, which cost about $100 and they cannot afford.”

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She dismissed the bill as “a 21st-century poll tax.”

Ehlers countered that proof of citizenship is required to receive a Social Security card or Medicare benefits. “I don’t see how the bill would disenfranchise” people, he said.

“If they’re eligible to vote, then this gives them an opportunity.”

Groups opposing the bill include the National Conference of State Legislatures. One of its officials, Susan Parnas Frederick, said the measure would add “bureaucratic burdens we feel are unnecessary.”

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In Georgia, the state photo ID law took effect July 1 but was immediately blocked by state and federal judges. Supporters of the law, including Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, have insisted that it is needed to protect against voter fraud.

The Missouri law that tripped up Skelton was struck down last week by a judge who ruled that requiring a government-issued photo ID placed an undue burden on voters.

On Tuesday, Georgia State Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford echoed the Missouri ruling. The case is expected to go to the Georgia Supreme Court before the November elections.

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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