There's plenty of time to debate merits of Alabama's photo voter ID law
by Tim Lockette
Sep 23, 2012 | 5532 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As Election Day nears, debate about new laws requiring photo ID at the polls is raging across the country.

But in Alabama, where a photo ID law won’t go into effect until 2014, voters without a photo ID still have two years to get one — and the state has yet to design a voter-only ID for voters who don’t have a driver’s license, or a system for distributing those IDs.

“There’s time to get that in place,” said state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, the sponsor of Alabama’s voter ID bill.

In 2011, Alabama joined a string of other states in passing a bill that would require people to present photo identification, such as a driver’s license, at the polls. In swing states such as Pennsylvania, those laws face heated court battles in the run-up to the presidential election. With two years left until it’s implemented, Alabama’s law hasn’t faced quite as much opposition.

Proponents of the laws say they’re needed to prevent voter fraud. Opponents say voter fraud is very rare in America, while the number of people who could be disenfranchised by the photo ID requirement is much greater — and that black voters are less likely than white voters to have the right kind of ID.

“Our estimate is that as much as 11 percent of the citizen population doesn’t have a photo ID,” said Keesha Gaskins, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Opponents — including Attorney General Eric Holder — have compared the photo ID requirement to a segregation-era poll tax. If courts determine that photo ID requirements place an undue burden on black voters, it’s likely that the law will be knocked down before it ever takes effect.

So how photo ID is made available to voters could make all the difference.

Back-door poll tax?

Getting an accurate count of the people who lack photo ID in Alabama is difficult, Gaskins said. But it’s likely that even more than 11 percent of eligible Alabama voters lack ID, she said.

The Brennan Center arrived at its data through a nationwide survey, Gaskins said, and it would take another survey to accurately sample Alabama. Comparing numbers of people on voter rolls to the number of driver’s licenses doesn’t work, she said.

“There are so many dead people on both lists, the comparison is meaningless,” she said.

What Gaskin’s numbers do show is that people over 65, blacks and all persons who live in poverty are less likely than the average person to have a photo ID. Car ownership — or the lack of it — is a big part of that situation, she said.

Blacks make up just over one fourth of Alabama’s population, according to census numbers, about twice the national percentage. Seventeen percent of the population lives below the poverty level, while the national poverty rate is 13 percent. Fourteen percent of Alabamians are over 65, just a touch over the national rate.

Right now, and in the November elections, those voters can go to the polls without a driver’s license and still cast a ballot. Alabama accepts a number of forms of ID, including pistol permits, fishing licenses or Social Security cards. But when the law takes effect, if they don’t have a driver’s license, these voters will have to go get some kind of voter ID.

“It’s not that difficult,” said state Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston. “You can get a non-driver ID at the same place where you get a driver’s license.”

True — but the non-driver ID costs $23. Opponents say that cost amounts to a poll tax — a charge that could block some low-income voters from voting. When it was stuck down by a court in the 1960s, Gaskins notes, Alabama’s poll tax was $1.50 — or about $10.50 today, adjusted for inflation, she said.

A free ID

The new voter ID law attempts to get around that problem by mandating that the Secretary of State create a voter-only ID card that voters can get for free.

But it’s not yet clear when that card will be available, or how it will be distributed. In past statements, officials of the Secretary of State’s office have said they’ll begin working on the problem if the law gets approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. Deputy Secretary of State Emily Thompson reiterated that in a Friday email.

“We are currently concentrating on the November presidential election, the special elections and also the municipal runoff elections that will be coming up in October,” she wrote.

Rich said the new free ID would be easy to implement.

“I think they’ll probably contract with the Department of Public Safety and make it available where you get your driver’s license,” he said.

Gaskins isn’t sure it will be that simple. She said that people will have to produce a birth certificate to get the ID, at a cost of $15 to a voter who doesn’t already have one. Married women may need to get a copy of their marriage license as well, to match their name to the name on the voter rolls, she said. That’s another $15.

Rich doesn’t see that as a burden.

“If you’ve got a birth certificate, it’s no cost at all,” he said. “Most people do.”

10 miles to ID

There seems to be at least some support for Rich’s position, even among black voters. In Thursday interviews, several residents of Anniston’s mostly-black Ward 2 said they either supported the requirement or were indifferent to it.

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Tawana Montgomery. She said that at 47, she still gets carded when buying alcohol.

Cordarious Jones at first said he supported it. Then he expressed some misgivings, saying it might affect one party more than the other.

“I’m pretty sure just about everybody that’s a Republican has an ID,” he said.

Everyone The Star spoke to in on-the-street interviews Thursday said they had a photo identification. But Anniston, the Calhoun County seat, may not be the place where residents are most challenged to get an ID.

According to a map produced by the Brennan Center, the Black Belt counties are the among the hardest places in the state to get an ID, with driver’s license offices open only part time, many residents living more than 10 miles from the office and little to no public transportation.

Rich said the need for voter ID is obvious to most people. He said opponents of the requirement are “grasping at straws.”

“These are bogus arguments,” he said. “You need an ID for just about everything you do these days.”

Gaskins said it’s hard to see why the state needs a law that could disenfranchise thousands — when only a handful of voter fraud allegations nationwide are substantiated in any given year.

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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