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Cleaver, Durbin argue that photo-ID requirements suppress voter turnout

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 9, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Contending that new state photo-ID voting laws are "reminiscent of poll taxes," U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, told a U.S. Senate panel that such requirements would have a "disproportionate impact" on African American voters.

Cleaver, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and other witnesses cautioned Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, that -- even if the intent of photo-ID laws is non-political -- they would have the effect of suppressing voter turnout.

Such laws are "solutions in search of problems," Cleaver argued, because "in the 23 states and the District of Columbia that allow voters to show both photo and non-photo IDs -- such as a utility bill and bank statement -- there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is occurring."

This year alone, seven states have passed laws requiring photo identification at the polls, and several other state legislatures are considering such bills. In Missouri, the General Assembly may try during its special session to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of the bill implementing the proposed constitutional amendment to require Missouri voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls.

The Senate panel's chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in his opening statement that he was "deeply concerned by this coordinated, well-funded effort to pass laws that would have the impact of suppressing votes."

In the past decade, about 30 states have adopted some kind of voter ID law, experts say, and the National Conference of State Legislatures says 14 of those laws require or request government-issued photo IDs. Durbin said there has been a sudden increase this year in the number of states enacting laws that either require photo IDS, reduce the time allowed for early voting or tighten restrictions on groups conducting voter registration drives.

"Regardless of the stated intention or goals," Durbin said, "many analysts believe these laws will cause widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement by making it more difficult for millions of disabled, young, minority, rural, elderly, homeless and low-income Americans to vote."

But the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defended photo-ID laws as necessary to prevent voter fraud, especially among illegal aliens. "When it comes to voting, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to have to prove that you are who you say you are," Graham said. "I think this is the future of the country, something we should embrace at the federal level because elections do matter."

Graham's position was backed by Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior law fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Justice. He said voter ID laws are needed because "there are recurring problems with our voter registration system because many states do not do an adequate job of checking the accuracy and validity of new voter registration."

While von Spakovsky contended that most studies indicate that photo-ID requirements do not suppress voter turnout, another witness -- Justin Levitt, an associate professor and election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles -- cited other studies that he said show that millions of Americans don't have the types of IDs required by the laws. "That's an awful lot of people to shut out for no reason," he said.

A proposed photo ID mandate will be on Missouri's 2012 ballot, after the Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to resurrect the requirement several years after the state Supreme Court ruled that Missouri's constitution currently bars such a requirement for voters. This time, voters will be asked to amend the state's constitution.

The implementation bill that Nixon vetoed detailed how such an ID mandate would work. The bill's aimed to ease concerns of some types of voters, such as the elderly, who could be affected because some lack a driver's license, the most common form of government-issued photo ID.

While Cleaver did not specifically mention the Missouri situation, he told the Senate panel in his remarks that "given the disproportionate impact the voter suppression laws will have on African-American voters, these laws are reminiscent of the poll taxes used in the Jim Crow South."

He cited studies indicating that about 11 percent of American citizens do not have government-issued photo identification (defined as a driver's license, military ID or passport). The percentage is disproportionately higher (25 percent) for African-American voting-age citizens, he said, compared to 8 percent of white voting-age citizens.

Determined to fight photo-ID requirements and other restrictions, Cleaver said the Congressional Black Caucus joined House Democratic leaders in writing a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to "protect the voting rights of Americans by using the full power of the Department of Justice to review the 47 pending or passed state voter identification bills and scrutinize their implementation."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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