Proposed voter identification laws in at least six states currently are being reviewed by courts, or are pending approval by the U.S. Department of Justice. Critics and proponents of voter ID laws agree that voter ID laws could have a significant impact on the upcoming presidential election.
The 24th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1964 and prohibits poll taxes, or any tax, to be a prerequisite to a person’s right to vote in Federal elections. The U.S. Supreme Court extended that right to state elections in 1966.
Proponents of voter ID laws believe that these laws are necessary and will discourage voter fraud, which can include eligible voters who vote more than once, and non-qualified persons who cast a ballot. Non-qualified voters include those under the age of 18, people who lack sufficient mental capacity to vote, or felons prohibited from voting due to state law. Penalties for voter fraud vary from state-to-state, but can include a civil fine of up $1,000 or incarceration for up to five years. Most states restrict a convicted felon’s right to vote while incarcerated and even while on probation or parole. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while incarcerated. Felons in Kentucky and Virginia are banned from voting for life unless the right to vote is restored by the governor or state legislature.
A California resident and citizen of the United States is eligible to vote in California if he is:
- not in prison, on parole or under post-release community supervision as a result of a felony conviciton;
- not serving a sentence in a county jail for the conviction of a low-level felony as defined by the Criminal Justice Realignment Act of 2011 (CJRA);
- not on probation as an alternative to serving the concluding portion of a sentence in county jail for the conviction of a CJRA-defined low-level felony;
- not declared mentally incompetent by a court of law; and,
- not serving a state prison term in a county jail under contract between state and local officials.
That said, a California resident and United States citizen can vote in California if he is:
- in a local jail as a result of a misdemeanor conviction;
- in county jail as a condition of probation when entry of judgment and sentencing have been suspended following a felony conviction;
- awaiting trial or is currently in trial and is not yet convicted of a crime;
- completed parole or post-release community supervision for a felony conviction; or
- on probation, unless the probation is an alternative to serving the concluding portion of a sentence in county jail for the conviction of a CJRA-defined low-level felony.
Critics of voter ID laws, however, argue that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in recent elections, and that the laws unfairly target minorities, and lower income voters who may not have the necessary IDs to vote, or the financial means to obtain them. Therefore, the laws will prevent large number from voting. According to a 2011 study, approximately 11% of U.S. adults eligible to vote do not have government issued photo IDs.
One of the first attempts by a state to required voter IDs in order to vote was a law proposed in 1999 by Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore. The law was eventually struck down later that year by the Virginia Supreme Court because it failed to reduce voter fraud, and excluded voters unfairly. Following the 2000 presidential election which was notable for the controversial re-count of Florida’s ballots, there was more interest in voter laws and voter fraud. In 2002, President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act which required first time voters in Federal elections, and all voters who registered by mail, to show a current and valid photo ID, or other form of acceptable non-photo ID, at registration or voting. Since then, at least 31 states have implemented some type of voter ID law which requires some sort of ID at the polling place. The state laws differ in what type of ID is required, and include:
- must show a photo ID (8 states)
- must show a photo ID or some acceptable alternate non-photo ID (7 states)
- accepts non-photo IDs (16 states)
- no ID required (remaining 19 states).
In August 2012, a Federal court struck down a Texas law that would have required voters to show a photo ID and held that the law would have been too burdensome for the poor, which in Texas includes a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans and Hispanics.
In California, voters are required to present proof of identity at registration or prior to voting, but no ID is required at the polling place. Acceptable forms of identification for registration include government issued photo IDs as well as other photo IDs such as:
- employee ID
- credit or debit card
- student ID
- health club ID.
California residents can also prove identity with other documents that do not have a photo. However, the IDs must include the name and address of the voter, and include documents such as:
- utility bill
- bank statement
- government paycheck
- public housing ID issued by a governmental agency
- lease or rental statement issued by a governmental agency.
While officials from the State of Texas have indicated that they plan to appeal the recent ruling, even if it is reversed, it will not be in time to have any impact on the 2012 election. However, a voter ID similar to the Texas law was proposed in South Carolina and is scheduled to be heard in September 2012 before the same three-justice panel that decided the case involving the Texas voter ID law.