Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Battle over Voter IDs: As More States Adopt Voter Identification Laws, College Students Are the Latest Group to Cry Foul

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The Battle over Voter IDs: As More States Adopt Voter Identification Laws, College Students Are the Latest Group to Cry Foul

Article excerpt

For a decade, civil rights groups have fought against laws requiring voters to show government-issued IDs at the polls, arguing that such laws discriminate against minorities and the poor. Now, a new group is joining the battle: students.

Seven college students have filed a lawsuit in North Carolina over that state's new voter ID law. The law will, among other things, exclude student ID cards as a valid form of identification at the polls and eliminate same-day registration--which many college students use to vote in states where they go to school.

"A lot of students are not going to remember ... to change their voting address," says Jocelyn Hunt, a senior at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. "[The law is] a direct attack on students and their voting."

The North Carolina law is part of a wave of new voting restrictions that have been adopted across the nation in recent years. Thirty-three states now have laws that require voters to show a government-issued ID and that cut back on early voting or same-day registration.

Republicans, who control most of the state governments enacting the new laws, say the rules are necessary to prevent voter fraud. Why, they often argue, is a photo ID routinely required to board a plane but not to vote?

"These laws will put us up-to-date with other democracies," says Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group in Washington, D.C. "We are one of the only democracies in the world that does not uniformly require a photo ID to vote."

A Threat to the Right to Vote?

Democrats argue that voter fraud--particularly voter impersonation, which is what requiring IDs aims to prevent--is rare. The real purpose of the laws, they say, is to discourage, or even block, some eligible voters from casting ballots. An estimated 21 million Americans--many of them young, elderly, poor, black, or Hispanic--don't have a government-issued ID. (1) And many of them tend to vote Democratic.

Some see the new voter ID laws as the latest effort to make it harder for certain groups to vote.

"The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago," President Obama said in April.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racial discrimination in voting. It also required that the Justice Department approve all new voting laws in states with a history of discrimination at the polls, most of them in the South.

But last year, in a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court overturned that provision, saying that the U.S. has moved largely beyond racial divisions.

"Our country has changed," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. After the ruling, at least nine states that previously needed federal approval adopted new voting regulations, including Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi. Whatever their intent, many of the new laws will make it harder for college students to vote where they go to school, some experts say. (At press time, the Justice Department was challenging Texas's voter ID law in federal court, alleging it's discriminatory.)

So far the courts have been divided over voter ID laws. They've been upheld in Indiana, Kansas, and Arizona. But in Pennsylvania it's been struck down. Earlier this year in Wisconsin, a federal judge ruled that the state's photo ID law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which still stands and which bars discrimination against minorities.

Last month, a federal appeals court reinstated the law after Wisconsin made it easier for voters to obtain photo ID cards. Other pending cases are still awaiting legal action in at least three states.

In North Carolina, the students are making a new constitutional argument. They say the state's voter ID law violates the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21 in 1971. …

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