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Election 2014--Voter Photo ID Law

The general election is right around the corner and many Alabamians will head to the polls to decide races from Governor to state legislators. This election is the third time Alabama’s new voter photo ID law has been in effect. But, November fourth is considered the big test. Alabama election officials are working to get an estimated half a million voters some form of ID with their picture on it before the polls open on Tuesday. Secretary of State Jim Bennett says along with TV ads, the state has sent out mobile ID units to help with the process.

“Our vans have traveled over 12,000 miles made over 100 stops,” says Bennett. We've been very active with that, we’re continuing that program right up through the November 4th general election.”

Similar photo I-D laws to Alabama’s have been struck down in other states. The courts have ruled that these measures disenfranchise voters, mostly minorities. Deuel Ross is an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund which recently won a challenge against Texas’ photo ID law.

“In Texas the law is very restrictive in terms of the kinds of photo ID that you can present in order to vote,” says Ross. “A student ID is not acceptable whereas a concealed handgun license is acceptable.”

Not only was the Texas law challenged on its impact on minority voters. But, the measure was branded a poll tax.

“In order to get a photo I-D in Texas you had to pay either a direct fee for something like a driver’s license or a fee that was closely tied to obtaining something like a quote on quote free election identification certificate which actually required a two dollar fee for acquiring a birth certificate and other underlying documentation,” says Ross.

Alabama’s law does not have those problems. There is a variety of acceptable photo I-D’s and the free I-D campaign you heard earlier is all meant to combat the poll tax issues. But the Legal Defense Fund is still trying to get the law struck down because it allegedly discriminates against minorities. One such practice requires a voter to be positively identified by two poll officials in order to vote without an I-D.

“That actually helps minorities who don’t have a photo I-D,” says Jim Bennett. “Because a lot of rural boxes voters know each other and poll workers know each other and know the voters. That’s certainly not a detriment to holding down minority voting. It’s been in place a number of years, this is not a new thing.”

But the Legal Defense Fund says the rule is a voucher test which smacks of Jim Crow.

"About 71 percent of white people in the state have less than five friends who are non-white, says Deuel Ross. “And so I think the problem here is the same problem that it was in the past is that these white election officials unfortunately don't know enough people of color for this to be a real ameliorative provision in the way the Alabama legislature might have meant."

Ronald Krotoszynski is a law professor at the University of Alabama. He says given the recent Voting Rights Act decision, the Legal Defense Fund may have a hard time proving its case.

“The problem that litigation of this sort is likely to run up against is showing intentional discrimination by local officials with respect to this vouching system where two election officials can sign an affidavit saying that they know someone is a registered voter even if the voter doesn’t have a photo I-D,” says Krotoszynski. “In the absence of proof of sort of systematic and intentional discrimination the claim is unlikely to have much purchase I’m afraid.”

The issue is an Alabama court case called Shelby vs. Holder. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 based on this Alabama case. Before, it was easier to prove discrimination based on impact. Now, Krotoszynski thinks the new ruling means there is a larger burden to prove intent which would make everything tougher.

"We're continuing to try to meet with the Secretary of State's office and hopefully we'll get him to address some of the issues that we're talking about,” says Ross. “Including the fact that these photo I-D issuing locations or boards of registrars and many places and G-P-S offices are inaccessible to poor voters and voters who don't have access to vehicles or public transportation."

For his part Bennett says when it comes to changing the law that’s outside of his purview as Secretary of State.

“But in final analysis, that’s not something the Secretary of State has any authority over that’s a legislative act provision. Krotoszynski however thinks if anyone is going to go after the Alabama voter ID law, now is their best shot.

“If you can show a pattern or practice of these mobile units being made more or less redundant with the main county seat offices, a reasonable district court judge holding a bench trial could find that this is indicative of intentional or purposeful discrimination,” says Krotoszynski.

As it stands the Legal Defense Fund has no formal legal challenge to Alabama’s photo I-D law. That means voters will have to present identification on Tuesday. Anyone without I-D can get identification all the way up to November 4th and even on Election Day.

Ryan Vasquez is a reporter and the former APR host of All Things Considered.
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