Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Voter ID law confusing, critics say

Michigan's voter ID law has been touted as inhibiting voter fraud, but critics contend it is confusing, impractical and likely to inhibit voter participation.

Voters lacking photo identification can vote simply by signing an affidavit saying that they lack identification at the time of voting. Their ballot will be counted with all other ballots and their right to vote cannot be challenged. The November 6 election will be the first test of the newly allowed procedure. The ID requirement went into effect after a Michigan Supreme Court decision this summer held Michigan's 1996 voter ID law to be constitutional.

"The legislative intent behind the voter ID law was to substantiate identity and curtail fraud," says Kelly Chesney, spokesperson for the Michigan Secretary of State's Office. "If individuals without ID sign an affidavit falsely, they are subject to fines and penalties. It is considered perjury and is punishable by a fine up to $1000 or imprisonment. So there is a deterrent to individuals committing fraud."

Since lacking the ID at time of voting does not prevent voting, the direct practical impact of the law is unclear. "We are not aware of any voter fraud causing a need for a voter ID requirement," says Jessica Reiser, president of the non-partisan Michigan League of Women Voters.

According to the Secretary of State, if a voter lacks the proper identification, signing an affidavit to that effect allows them to vote. The local election clerks must keep the signed forms on record for two years -- the same retention schedule for all other election materials. Election challengers cannot challenge voters because they lack photo ID.

Although the November 6, 2007 election is actually the first election where this will be enforced, not all municipalities will have an election that day. For many voters, Michigan's January 15 primary will be the first time they must comply with Michigan's photo identification requirement in order to cast their vote.

The League of Women Voters has consistently criticized voter ID laws as inhibiting voter participation. "The League of Women Voters opposes any procedure requiring identification to vote. We feel this is intimidating and will keep people from coming to the polls," says Reiser.

"There is a population that will not understand the affidavit requirement. This misunderstanding could inhibit voter turn out," says Reiser. She says people will assume that the photo ID law prevents voting without a proper ID in hand. Although this is not the case, the League expects such confusion to keep certain voters away from the polls.

Chesney says that local election officials are working very hard to train front line poll workers to properly assist voters. Still, some local clerks expect the new photo ID requirement will complicate voting. "I'm sure a lot of people will not have the required ID,"says Dorothy Dunville, Acme Township Clerk. "The required affidavit paperwork will definitely slow down the voting process."

There are no exceptions to the photo identification procedure. Even if the voter is well known to the election inspector the ID procedure must be followed. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a voter ID case from Indiana - the Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita - which could challenge Michigan's voter ID law. The Court has not yet scheduled the case.