The debate over requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls has been a heated one. Democrats accuse Republicans, who support such laws, of wanting to suppress the votes of minorities, the elderly and the poor. Republicans accuse Democrats, who oppose ID rules, of condoning voter fraud.
It's a sharp partisan divide. But a few people have gone against the tide — and they're getting some political heat for doing so.
A Democrat Criticized For Fraud Concerns
Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama created quite a stir when he wrote a column recently in The Montgomery Advertiser saying that he has changed his mind and now thinks that voter ID requirements are a good thing.
"When I was in office, frankly, as an African-American politician, in a predominately African-American district, it was very easy to look at these issues in a very reflexive kind of way," Davis, now an attorney in Washington, D.C., told NPR. "And to the extent that I did that, that's something that I regret."
Davis says he has come to the conclusion that the inconvenience of requiring voters to show ID at the polls is a small price to pay for clean, transparent elections. And, he says, in parts of rural Alabama that can be a problem.
"If you ever campaigned in those communities, you know that there's a big market for absentee ballots," he says. "You know there's a group of people who will come to you like clockwork a few weeks before the election and say, 'I can get you X number of absentee ballots.' "
Davis says it happened to him and to everyone else who has run for office in those areas. He notes that over the years there have been numerous allegations of absentee voter fraud — and even a handful of convictions — in Alabama.
Davis says the victims of such fraud are African-American voters and candidates who don't game the system.
"It's not that this process is being used to favor white candidates in these communities over black candidates, or vice versa," he says. "It's African-American candidates running against African-American candidates."
But his position is not a popular one. Most Democrats think that African-Americans are hurt the most by the new laws, because they're less likely to have the required photo ID. Opponents of ID laws say that the threat of voter fraud is overblown and actual cases are rare.
And Davis has been challenged in the blogosphere to name names if he has seen fraud firsthand. He says that would be futile — his word against theirs.
He has also been criticized by fellow Democrats. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says maybe Davis just wants to become a Republican.
Nuances Lost In The Debate
One Republican has a suggestion.
"Frankly, both sides need to tone it down," says Jon Husted, Ohio's secretary of state.
Husted knows all too well what it's like not to toe the party line. He came out against, and effectively killed, a GOP-backed bill that would have required voters in his state to show photo ID.
"I don't believe you need to have a photo ID to provide for voter security," Husted says.
He told the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year that he would prefer no bill to one that might prevent valid voters from having their ballots count. That position earned him the title of "Ohio's Pro-Fraud Republican" in a Wall Street Journal column.
"I'm for preventing voter fraud," insists Husted. "But I'm also for the disabled Korean War veteran who doesn't drive, who doesn't have access to photo ID, having an easy access to cast that ballot because they too have earned that right."
Husted says there are other ways to verify a voter's identity, including allowing those without ID to provide the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Davis notes that Alabama's new ID law — which still needs to be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department — also includes exceptions for those without photo ID, including allowing them to vote if two election officials can vouch for their identity.
If Davis agrees with Husted on anything, it's that these kinds of nuances have been lost in the debate.
"Voter ID ought to be judged on its merits," Davis says. "Let's try to strip the politics out of it." He notes that Democratic lawmakers in Rhode Island were also criticized for backing a voter ID requirement in that state.
Husted says the last thing his crucial swing state needs in a close election is a controversial voter ID law that might tie up the results.
"We need stability in our election system," Husted adds. "Not irresponsible rhetoric about voter suppression or voter fraud."
Husted says it only undermines public confidence in a system that, for the most part, works surprisingly well. And he blames both parties.
"It's really become a tactic of the campaigns to rally the base to complain about the elections process in particular states," he says.
But it's unlikely to end anytime soon. Democrats and Republicans both use the issue to raise funds.
And when a 96-year-old Tennessee woman recently went to her local Department of Motor Vehicles office to get a photo ID — after she was initially denied — she was accompanied by a videographer from the Obama re-election campaign.
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