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State Voter ID Laws Hang In The Balance


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a new documentary looks at how well the military is able to take care of women who return from service. That's in a few minutes. But first we turn to the election.

Both candidates are fighting for votes on the campaign trail. There's a battle brewing in several states over who will be able to vote and how, this November. Since 2010, state legislatures around the country pass laws requiring varying forms of identification at the polls.

Supporters say the laws are needed to combat voter fraud, but opponents say there's no evidence that fraud is a serious problem. They argue that the laws are a ploy to suppress votes among constituencies that lean Democratic. But with fewer than three months until the election the laws' opponents and the voters who might be affected are running out of time.

For a closer look we're joined now by Corey Dade. He's a national correspondent for the NPR digital news team. He's been covering this issue extensively. And Corey, thanks for being here.


HURTADO: So right out of the gate let's start with the states that are involved in disputes over voter I.D. laws now. What can you tell us about them?

DADE: Well, there are about seven states right now defending voter ID laws against discrimination suits. Most of them are filed in federal courts, most of these cases, some are in the state courts. The case everyone has heard the most about, of course, most recently is the Pennsylvania voter ID law.

Last week, a state judge in Pennsylvania decided not to grant an injunction that would've stopped the law from taking effect in November. So the opponents, who include the NAACP, residents in Pennsylvania who say they would be prevented from voting as a result of these laws - and they're also represented, by the way, by the American Civil Liberties Union and a group called the Advancement Project.

The plaintiffs have filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court and that's probably where we'll find the final resolution to this case.

HURTADO: Corey, people on the ground there aren't necessarily waiting for final rulings. I want to play a little bit of tape from Bob Previdi. He's with the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition. That's a non-partisan voter education campaign. He's been helping people who might need IDs to vote under that state's new law to get them. Here's what he told us.

BOB PREVIDI: We're not talking about people who are not registered to vote - we're talking about people who are registered to vote, who have voted for many, many years and are proud to participate in the American system. And here we are in the cradle of liberty, Philadelphia. This is where America was born.

These people should, you know, have the right to vote and we simply want to make sure that this is the law, and all we're doing is explaining that this is the new law, you need to comply with the new law.

HURTADO: What are you hearing, Bob, from people you're working with about the challenges they're facing getting their IDs?

PREVIDI: We're hearing all kinds of different stories, mostly from elderly Americans who live here. Again, they don't have their birth certificate. They were born in a different state. That really makes matters complicated, because you've got to go back and touch base with the other state.

We've had a couple of cases of African-Americans who were born in Italy because their parents were involved in the military and they were overseas at the time of their birth. So there's some real complications here that - that's what makes the timing of this very critical.

It's going to take a little while to get this information. If you haven't heard about this and jumped on it already, it may take you some time to get what you need and have the right documentation to the get the ID.

HURTADO: Bob, besides groups like yours that are working to help people get their IDs, can you tell us if the state is doing anything along these lines?

PREVIDI: The state has announced that they have a $5 million effort. We are eagerly awaiting for them to get started with that effort. I know that they have sent out letters, but this is going to be more than just sending out letters. They really need to do an overall effort to inform every voter.

It seems to me that, you know, in government, many times, people change the rules on something and you kind of give a grace period, an overlapping period, where you allow enough time for something to change into the new rule. In this particular case, the state doesn't really know what that number is.

Is it 500,000? Is it 700,000? Is it a million? They don't really know what the number is, and as they say, there hasn't been any voter fraud. I don't really know what the hurry is in getting it implemented this year. You know, why not make sure every registered voter - again, these are registered voters - why don't we make sure all the registered voters have the appropriate ID first before we go ahead and enforce it.

HURTADO: That was Bob Previdi with the Pennsylvania Voter I.D. Coalition. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. We're talking about new rules about who can vote and how this November.

I'm here with NPR's Corey Dade who has been covering this story. And so Corey, we just heard Bob Previdi speaking. The Pennsylvania law is being challenged in state and not in federal court. What's the significance of that?

DADE: Well, first it means it's not a challenge of the federal Voting Rights Act and that's significant. The plaintiffs here are challenging it under the state constitution. So the next step, of course, is that the case will go before the state's Supreme Court and that's where it'll finally get its resolution.

The public, overall, is watching this not so much because it's a federal case, of course, but because it's being tried in a state that's a battleground state for the presidential contest.

HURTADO: And because it might have repercussions in other states contemplating similar legislation.

DADE: Absolutely. There is also a federal component here, though. The Justice Department is reviewing this law to see if it disproportionately might affect minorities. And if they decide that that's the case, the Justice Department very well could file a lawsuit in federal court to block this law.

HURTADO: And Corey, you mentioned the Voter Rights Act of 1965 when you were speaking about federal law. Can you tell us about that and how it plays in here?

DADE: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 includes a section called Pre-Clearance. That is the section of the law that requires communities - they could be states, counties, you name it - to get federal approval for any election changes and as a result, they feel that they are unduly being required to meet this standard. Even though they no longer, in their minds, discriminate against minorities.

And so the Justice Department uses the pre-clearance requirement to challenge voter I.D. laws in many of these states and many of the election restrictions that we've seen pass in the last two years on the grounds that these laws would disproportionately harm minority voters.

HURTADO: And we've been talking a lot about voter ID issues, but there's also rules that are being debated about early voting in places like Ohio and in Florida. So what's the significance there and what do you see if you were to look into your crystal ball as far as where these cases are headed?

DADE: Well, when it comes to Florida, election law is always the issue, right?


DADE: Dating back to the 2000 recount and even before that. In Florida, of course, we had a ruling last week. The judge in that case ruled that the restrictions on early voting can't be imposed in five counties and these are five counties that actually are covered by the federal Voting Rights Act because they have histories of discrimination.

So it's certainly a victory for opponents of these laws, but there are still restrictions in Florida that are being addressed in court. And then there's the initiative in Florida to scrub its voter rolls of any illegal immigrants or other non-citizens who somehow were able to register to vote. That's being tried in federal court.

In Ohio, of course, you have restrictions on early voting that would only apply in certain counties that now the Secretary of State in Ohio has come out and tried to mitigate this dispute. But it's really not over at this point.

HURTADO: So, Corey, how do supporters of these laws defend against claims that these laws discriminate?

DADE: Well, it's interesting. These cases, overall, bring up the question of whether or not the Voting Rights Act is still fairly applied, especially in the South where you have a history of discrimination. Many of these supporters say black voters, for example, in the South vote at higher rates than black voters in any other part of the country.

And so, one of the main criticisms of the Voting Rights Act is that the pre-clearance requirement is actually imposed based on voting turnout of African-Americans and other minorities from the late 1960s. And by any measure, voter turnout of minorities in the South is vastly improved since then.

HURTADO: So once we get the rulings in some of these cases, how do you think these laws are going to affect other states?

DADE: Well, we have a few dates coming up. The Texas voter ID case, which a lot of people have heard about, it went to trial in federal court in Washington, D.C. in July. That decision is expected by the end of August. We have the South Carolina voter ID case that is going to trial on September 24th, and those two cases are being closely watched for a variety of different communities.

You have more than 30 states that have considered voter ID or other related type of laws in their legislatures over the last two years. Many of these states have either held off while these cases are being worked through the courts or they've tried to tweak their own laws, like in Virginia, that just recently passed its own voter ID laws. So many of these states are looking at these cases as bellwethers for the next several months, really.

HURTADO: So, Corey, lots of talk about voter ID and how things have changed. If you want to vote in November, what do you need to show up with besides the whole filing cabinet?

DADE: Right, right. Well, Viviana, about 30 states currently require voters to show some form of ID when they vote. These could be non-photo IDs. These could photo IDs. Then you have another roughly 10 states that require some form of photo ID. Many of these IDs must be some version of government-issued IDs, such as driver's licenses, for example.

The best thing to do is contact your local elections office or your state, go online. You also have the Obama presidential campaign, you have the League of Women Voters, you have the National Urban League, you have all manner of different groups who are trying to vigorously educate the public about - in these various states about what types of IDs they need before they get to the polls. When in doubt, I think the best course is to bring your ID, period.

HURTADO: A lot of complicated stuff, but you really broke it down for us. Corey Dade, thank you. Corey Dade is the national correspondent for NPR's digital news team and he joined us here in our Washington studios.

DADE: Thank you, Viviana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.