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Voter ID Laws Countered In Congress With New Legislation

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Fourteen members of Congress have co-sponsored a bill that would override a recent spate of voter identification laws, passed in more than a dozen states to require voters to present government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot.

Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, has introduced the “America Votes Act of 2012,” which he and other Democrats hope will counter the wave of new voter ID legislation passed by Republican-led legislatures across the country.

The bill would allow voters to sign a sworn affidavit to prove their identity in lieu of providing government-issued photo identification such as a driver’s license or passport. The voter would then be able to cast a standard ballot and not a provisional ballot, the latter of which can be contested or thrown out for any number of procedural reasons under current voting ID laws.

“We will fight to the death to make sure that any voter, be they independent, Republican or Democrat has the right to vote and that their vote be heard,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland (D) during a conference call this afternoon. “The fact is that the opportunity to vote affords the janitor in the company to have the same power, on that day, Election Day, as the president of the company … I think when these efforts that suppress the vote are put forth it does serious damage to our democracy. That’s why I strongly support this legislation.”

Since 2008 more than a dozen states have passed some form of voter ID law, which Democrats and civil rights organizations say will have a disparate impact on key Democratic voting blocs including students, minorities and the elderly, large percentages of which do not have the required forms of ID or will likely have trouble acquiring them.

Recent reports suggest that as many as one in four African Americans and one in six Latinos would be barred from voting under the current voter ID laws. About one in 10 voters overall don’t have the required ID to vote and an estimated 1 million young minorities under the age of 30 could be barred from voting.

Opponents of the law have described the new voting laws as a solution looking for a problem, as data suggest very few instances of in-person voter fraud have been documented.

“Given the lack of evidence of voter fraud in our nation, it is clear the recent crop of voter ID laws does more to suppress the rights of voters than to truly safeguard our voting system,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon supporting the America Votes Act. “For this reason, I am proud to cosponsor the America Votes Act of 2012, which will protect the fundamental freedom to vote where it has been put in jeopardy.”

Republican leaders -- while noting that the GOP will likely benefit from voter ID laws that could disproportionately impact Democratic voters -- have maintained that the laws are meant to protect against voter fraud, not disenfranchise voters.

Some supporters of the voter ID laws have pointed to the recent admission by former Congressional candidate Wendy Rosen, a Democrat who until recently was running for a Maryland Congressional seat, that she had illegally registered and voted in elections in two states.

Democratic leaders urged Rosen to step down. Cummings said a photo ID requirement likely would not have stopped Rosen from illegally voting.

Yvette Lewis, the Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman, reportedly wrote a letter recently that alerted Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler of Rosen’s suspected voting improprieties.

"We believe that this is a clear violation of Maryland law and urge the appropriate office to conduct a full investigation," Lewis wrote. "The Maryland Democratic Party strongly believes in upholding and expanding the right to vote but, at the same time, believes there should be zero tolerance for voter fraud of any kind."

Just hours after the introduction of Larsen’s bill this afternoon, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court sent the state’s voter ID law back down to the lower court to determine whether or not the law can be implemented before November’s election without preventing eligible voters from voting.

With the close of the legislative session just days away, the Republican-controlled House will almost certainly not bring the bill to a vote this session.

Still, Larsen believes the bill’s introduction is the first step in pushing back legislatively against voter ID laws.

“If it doesn’t happen this year, we’ll be back at it next year and the year after this,” Larsen said during Tuesday’s conference call. “It is fair to say that this bill is necessary because we do need to continue to move forward on expanding voting rights or at least not suppressing voting rights, if you are a citizen and are legally registered to vote, you should be able to vote.”

The America Votes Act is of particular importance this election cycle, with what will likely be a dogfight between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a number of key states.

“These [voter ID] laws don’t apply just for this election. If we let them stand I believe we’ll see a steady erosion of voting rights,” Larsen said. “This is about this election but it’s about every election.”

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