Is voter ID law necessary? Questions and answers with Rep. Kerry Rich, sponsor of Alabama law, and Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama
by Special to The Star
Aug 19, 2012 | 6901 views |  0 comments | 288 288 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kerry Rich is a Republican state representative from Albertville who sponsored Alabama’s voter-ID law.

Why did you sponsor the Alabama voter-ID law that goes into effect in 2014?

Answer: I had been involved in that issue for a long time, originally as legislative director for Gov. Fob James. I have long believed it can be a very effective tool against voter fraud.

Q: Why didn’t previous voter-ID laws pass in the Alabama Legislature?

A: Voter ID did pass the Legislature in, I believe, 1992, but it was not photo voter ID. The law we currently operate under allows people to use many things as identification to vote, including a utility bill, Social Security card, credit card and other things that do not include a photo, which still allows for abuse.

Q: Are there examples of voter fraud in Alabama that prove the necessity of this law?

A: There have been some cases and convictions in Alabama, but voter fraud is something that is very hard to prove. Anyone who has ever been involved in politics for any period of time has at least heard of, if not personally known of, voter fraud. I go by the old saying, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Q: Some states’ voter-ID laws concentrate on stopping cases of voter impersonation at the polls. Are there examples of proven voter impersonation in Alabama elections?

A: Our law was patterned very much after the Georgia law, which has already been upheld by the U.S. Justice Department, and the purpose is simple. The election official can look at a photo and tell if that is indeed the person attempting to vote.

Q: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared voter-ID laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states discouraged the working class and poor, many of whom were minorities, from voting. What is your reaction to Holder’s comments?

A: I think he is uninformed at best or he has his own political agenda, which the attorney general of the United States is not supposed to have. Our law makes it very easy to get a photo ID. Several forms of photo ID are allowed, but if you don’t have one, the state of Alabama will provide one for you free of charge. If you go to the polls and forgot your ID and there are two poll officials who are willing to sign an affadavit stating you are who you say you are, you can still vote on a regular ballot, not a provisional ballot. If you do not have an ID and no one will vouch for you, you can still cast a provisional ballot. People who cast absentee ballots can do as they do now if they are what I call the sick and shut-in. The ballot has to be witnessed by two people or notarized. No photo ID is required for these people. People who are not covered by this and cast an absentee ballot are required to provide a copy of their photo ID.

Q: The Department of Justice is examining new voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, along with other states. What concern do you have that Alabama’s law will receive the same federal scrutiny?

A: I do not know the specifics of those laws, but as I mentioned earlier, our law was patterned after the Georgia law, which has received Justice Department approval.

Q: Critics of these new voter-ID laws often describe the laws as being politically driven in advance of the November elections. That’s also at the heart of the DOJ’s case. How do you respond to that?

A: I can only answer for my motivation, and the only motivation I have is to reduce voter fraud. Sometimes I suspect some of the critics of having their own agenda and that is to be able to continue voter fraud. Our law will not go into effect until 2014.

Q: Almost of all of the voter-ID laws passed recently have been passed by states with Republican-majority legislatures. Alabama is obviously one of those states. Is it unfair to label this as an important Republican nationa priority, and why?

A: The only thing I can tell you for sure is when the Democrats controlled the Alabama Legislature, you were not able to pass photo voter ID. When conservatives or Republicans gained control, we were able to pass it.

Q: Alabama’s voter-ID law explains several ways in which voters can cast their ballots and get acceptable identification cards. Where does that leave someone who can’t arrange to get a photo ID and doesn’t meet the other criteria? Is their vote taken away?

A: I can’t imagine a situation where if a person wants to vote and they are able to go to the polls that they can’t get an ID. Saying they can’t is nonsense. If they can’t go to the polls because of a physical disability or illness, they can vote absentee.

Q: Without this law, is Alabama in danger of having serious cases of voter fraud in the upcoming elections? Please explain.

A: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Olivia Turner is the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama.

What is the American Civil Liberties Union’s opinion of the voter-ID bills that have recently become law in many states?

Answer: As applied to countless voters throughout the United States, these laws, many of them strict photo-ID requirements for voting, violate the U.S. Constitution, so the ACLU remains firmly opposed to them and is actively seeking to block their enforcement in multiple states. These laws are simply too burdensome for too many voters, and they are already discouraging and disfranchising eligible voters in primaries and state and local elections. After all, those were the intended effects — voter deterrence and suppression.

Q: In your opinion, is there evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States that calls for these laws? If not, why are they so prevalent today?

A: No. Reports of voter-impersonation fraud are almost uniformly the result of administrative error, i.e., a voter signing on the wrong line in the poll book. These laws are an insult to the good work of our law enforcement authorities around the country who discover and prosecute election crimes. On the flip side, we do have evidence that approximately upwards of 60,000 eligible voters in Milwaukee County, Wisc., alone lack the necessary ID. In Pennsylvania, survey evidence demonstrates approximately 1.36 million eligible voters lack the required ID. Disfranchising thousands, if not millions, in order to combat a small number of random election crimes does violence to the legitimacy of our democracy.

Q: Some critics of these laws point to the prevalence of Republican-controlled Legislatures as being the catalyst for these laws. What is your response to that?

A: These laws are misguided and unconstitutional no matter who is behind them. It is more important to note that these laws do not respect the partisan affiliation of voters. The notion that elderly rural women without photo ID and veterans who only possess a veterans identification card, two populations the ACLU has observed are particularly struggling under these new laws, are all from one party or another is, to put it gently, foolish.

Q: Voter-ID bills have come before the Alabama Legislature several times in the past, and they haven’t passed. Why did this law pass now?

A: These voter-suppression laws have had momentum in the last two legislative cycles, and that nationwide momentum gave some state legislators cover so that their legislation would not be seen as an outlier. But the tide is starting to turn on them as these laws are successfully challenged in the courts. Wisconsin, Texas and South Carolina’s laws remain blocked, and others are on the chopping block.

Q: Who are the Alabamians who may be most affected by this law?

A: If the ACLU’s experience with these laws in other states is any guide, elderly voters, particularly in rural areas and particularly women who have never driven, minority voters who in state after state, it is demonstrated, disproportionately lack the required photo ID compared to their white counterparts, low-income voters, and voters with disabilities. These groups are at a significant disadvantage in attempting to collect the underlying documents necessary to acquire a state ID card, like certified copies of birth certificates.

Q: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared voter-ID laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states discouraged the working class and poor from voting. What is your reaction to Holder’s comments?

A: The attorney general’s statement is literally and legally accurate with respect to any voter who is forced to pay for an underlying document like a birth certificate or a marriage certificate in order to obtain a state ID card he or she can use to vote. For those voters, these laws clearly violate the 24th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. But the statement is also accurate as an analogy. Alabama imposed a poll tax to discourage voters and not just the working class and poor per se. There was a clear racial motivation to suppress the black vote in the South, and poll taxes, along with literacy tests, were used to that end. For instance, between June 1961 and May 1962, 92 percent of white applicants for voter registration were accepted, but only 62 percent of blacks had been accepted. (U.S. v. Atkins, 323 F.2d 733, 5th Cir. 1963.)

Q: How much scrutiny do you believe Alabama’s voter-ID law should receive from the Department of Justice?

A: It is not a question of amount. All voting changes enacted by jurisdictions covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act must be submitted to the Department of Justice, and the DOJ reviews them for a disproportionate negative impact on minority voters. The DOJ is simply doing its job in blocking the Texas and South Carolina laws, which would have that prohibited discriminatory impact.

Q: Without this law, how much concern do you have that Alabama’s elections will be affected by voter fraud?

A: It is important to remember that election fraud can be perpetrated by poll workers and election officials with access to the instruments of voting and vote tabulation. It is in fact far less likely that voters can corrupt the process, and they are deterred by the significant threat of felony prosecution and the very low possibility that any such malfeasance could sway the outcome. There is no evidence that such highly detectable fraud is occurring in numbers anywhere even close to the margins of victory in Alabama elections.
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