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Panel Debates Pros, Cons of New Voter Registration Laws

August 9, 2012  |  Link to article

August 6, 2012

Around the Bar

A vigorous debate sprung from a panel discussion on new voter registration laws at the ABA Annual Meeting on Aug. 5. The panel highlighted disagreements about the challenges voters may face at the polls this fall as a result of laws adopted in some states requiring voter identification and eliminating early voting, among other changes. Panelists also discussed whether the new laws are necessary to protect the electoral process.

The panel was moderated by Ashley Taylor, a partner at Troutman Sanders in Richmond, Va., and included South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson; Gerald Reynolds, general counsel for a utility in Louisville, Ky.; Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C.; Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and Benjamin Griffith, partner at Griffith & Griffith in Cleveland, Miss., and editor of the first and second editions of America Votes!, on election law.

One of the primary issues in the debate is the voter-identification requirement that is now enacted in more than 30 states, Griffith said. “The biggest concern is that [the laws] are a barrier,” he said, noting the well-known case of Viviette Applewhite, who has voted in every election for the past 50 years but says she won’t be able to cast a ballot this fall because of the ID law in Pennsylvania. “She doesn’t have a copy of her birth certificate because she was adopted, and she doesn’t have a driver’s license,” Griffith said, because she doesn’t drive. Applewhite is the plaintiff in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Pennsylvania.

In most states that have passed this law, the preferred ID is one issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, Arnwine said. But more than 20 million people have no ID issued by the DMV, she said. Often, people don’t have the required birth certificate or Social Security card, for example, needed to acquire a license or government-issued ID from the DMV. “Everyone is affected,” Arnwine said, “and women are disproportionately affected” because of name changes due to marriage or divorce. Women may not have updated identification or may struggle to obtain new identification after these life changes, she said.

Some legal experts are concerned that the new voter laws will lead to suppression of the minority vote. Restrictions on early voting, particularly cutting back the Sunday before the election, Arnwine said, affects blacks because churches often appealed to congregants to vote on that day.

Proponents of these laws, however, argue that they protect voters from deceptive practices, such as “robo calls” giving people incorrect information about the election date or telling them that they need not vote, because the election has already been decided. “Politicians will go out of their way to trick folks,” Reynolds said, noting that the stakes are high. “In very close presidential and local elections, some races are determined by hundreds or thousands of votes, and fraud could alter the outcome.”

In South Carolina, Wilson said voter ID requirements were adopted to help inspire confidence in the electoral system. “Every time someone commits fraud, it dilutes the other votes,” he said. He pointed out that ID’s are required for check cashing, to get on an airplane, even to get Sudafed, and that the vote has much greater weight than these activities. He also said that in his state, voters won’t be turned away if they come to the poll without an ID. “If they show up the day of the election, they can still vote by sworn affidavit,” Wilson said.

The panel discussed one solution to the problem that some individuals have with getting an ID. Everyone could receive a government-issued ID card that would be good from state to state. “We’ve never had a debate on what could displace what is on the state level,” Arnwine said.

No matter what side of the debate panelists were on, all agreed that no one should have to fight for the right to vote. “The integrity of the voting system should be a nonpartisan endeavor,” Martinez-De-Castro said. “If voter fraud is a real problem, we need to figure out ways to deal with that, and the magnitude of the response should match the magnitude of the problem.

“New Voter Registration Laws: Fighting Voter Fraud of Supressing the Vote” was co-sponsored by the Criminal Justice Section and Section of State and Local Government Law.

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