It was one year ago when the US Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section required federal approval for voting changes in states with a history of racial discrimination, mostly in the south. And after the Supreme Court acted, many of those states rushed to enact laws requiring photo identification to vote, including here in Alabama. The state reported few problems during this month’s primary election. Critics of voter photo ID say they’re waiting for the November election when more voters show up at the polls.
Randall Marshall: “The voter ID law was a solution in search of a problem.”
That’s Randall Marshall, Legal Director for the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marshall: “This has been really an across-the-nation kind of phenomena of an attempt in our view to make it more difficult for people to be able to register to vote, more difficult for them to be able to vote, and to have their vote counted.”
Critics of Alabama’s voter ID law say the measure is a partisan attempt to cut down on likely Democratic voters. That’s because they claim the law will hit minority voters, young voters, older and disabled voters, who are also more likely to vote Democratic. The big supporters of voter I.D. laws nationwide are mostly Republican legislatures.
Marshall: “The justification is voter fraud but there has been so few examples of voter fraud across this country that this really is trying to use a bazooka to kill a fly.”
This past primary was the first test of Alabama’s new voter ID law. Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett says things went pretty well.
Jim Bennett: “We only had a few problems to emerge so out of 613,000 voters, just a handful of problems, that’s a pretty good record.”
But that handful of problems did prevent some people from voting. That included a 93 year old man who stopped driving and doesn’t have a license. Again, Randall Marshall:
Marshall: “It is a matter of at least the reported instances of people being turned away, were people who were registered to vote and should have been allowed to vote.”
The relatively few problems that occurred might also just be due to the fact that so few people voted in this primary. With very few hotly-contested races, voter turnout was just around 21 percent. That’s expected to be much higher in November’s mid-term, and even more so in 2016 when voters will select the next president.
Marshall: “The larger the turnout, the more likely it is that there are going to be problems with the law.”
Secretary Bennett expressed confidence that Alabama will be ready for the higher turnout.
Bennett: “Well we will continue our media campaign about the new requirement to have a photo ID, just like we did during the primary. And we’ll continue that also during the runoff. So I don’t think very many people are unaware that the requirement’s in place.”
At a polling station at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa during the June 3rd primary, turnout was slow, but steady. Nancy Stewart was one of the volunteers at the polls that day.
Nancy Stewart: “So far we haven’t had any problems whatsoever. Everyone who came in was already ready with their ID and everything, so we haven’t had any problems so far. It’s been a kinda low turnout but other than that we’ve been able to keep up pretty good.
The poll workers seemed to be mostly in favor of the law. That includes volunteer Hazel Smith-Harris.
Hazel Smith-Harris: “So far in my eyes it has been [a success]. Yes sir. And it’s been a great help to ensure that the election goes according to plan and that leaves a small room for error as opposed to if something went wrong with numbers and everything at the end.”
The review appeared to be mixed among voters at this precinct at Stillman College. Mercedes worker Valerie Marshall was in favor.
Valerie Marshall: “I think it’s a great idea that everyone should have a picture ID for identity theft purposes and just fraudulent votes. I’ve never seen it but I know there’s always a possibility.”
Voter Joy Craddock was among the skeptics.
Joy Craddock: “I do not agree with it at all. I think we’re taking steps back, not in the right direction. You know we’re headed back to an era before civil rights even, like before the Civil Rights Era even got going.”
The Brennan Center for Justice says as many as 11 percent of voters nationwide don’t have photo IDs. That would be more than 300-thousand registered voters in Alabama according to 2012 figures. Alabama officials are offering free ID’s to people who don’t have them. So far they’ve given out just 3000. Craddock, who’s African-American, says her community is particularly affected.
Craddock: “We don’t always have the ID that they want us to have. You know, but we have other forms. My grandfather, his birth certificate was questionable at best. He did have a driver’s license but I know there are some people who don’t have driver’s licenses because they never drive. It’s harder to get a picture ID and I don’t feel like they did a large enough campaign to even explain to people how to get the IDs.
Voters will head back to the polls for a runoff election July 15th. But with turnout expected to only be around 5 percent, the likely next big test for the voter ID law won’t be until November. For APR News, I’m Jeremy Loeb.