Thousands of votes could be in jeopardy this November as more states with larger populations look to have tough voter ID rules in place that, opponents say, could reject more legitimate voters than fraudulent ones.
As more states put in place strict voter ID rules, an AP review of temporary ballots from Indiana and Georgia, which first adopted the most stringent standards, found that more than 1,200 such votes were tossed during the 2008 general election.
We want to protect those voters who do need their vote to count — the people who are doing things in an honest manner.
- Donna Sharp, Administrator of Elections in Hawkins County, Tenn.
During sparsely attended primaries this year in Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee, the states implementing the toughest laws, hundreds more ballots were blocked.
The numbers suggest legitimate votes rejected by the laws are far more numerous than are the cases of fraud that advocates of the rules say they are trying to prevent.
More than two dozen states have some form of ID requirement, and 11 of those passed new rules over the past two years largely at the urging of Republicans who say they want to prevent fraud.
Democrats and voting rights groups fear that ID laws could suppress votes among people who may not typically have a driver's license, and disproportionately affect the elderly, poor and minorities. While the number of votes is a small percentage of the overall total, they have the potential to sway a close election. Remember that the 2000 presidential race was decided by a 537-vote margin in Florida.
When Edward and Mary Weidenbener went to vote in Indiana's primary in May, they didn't realize that state law required them to bring government photo IDs such as a driver's license or passport.
The husband and wife, both approaching 90 years old, had to use a temporary ballot that would be verified later, even though they knew the people working the polling site that day. Unaware that Indiana law obligated them to follow up with the county election board, the Weidenbeners ultimately had their votes rejected — news to them until informed recently by an Associated Press reporter.
Edward Weidenbener, a World War II veteran who had voted for Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential contest, said he was surprised by the rules and the consequences.
"A lot of people don't have a photo ID. They'll be automatically disenfranchised," he said.
A Republican leader in Pennsylvania said recently that the state's new ID law would allow Romney to win the state over President Barack Obama.
Supporters of the laws cite anecdotal cases of fraud as a reason that states need to do more to secure elections, but fraud appears to be rare. As part of its effort to build support for voter ID laws, the Republican National Lawyers Association last year published a report that identified some 400 election fraud prosecutions over a decade across the entire country. That's not even one per state per year.
ID laws would not have prevented many of those cases because they involved vote-buying schemes in local elections or people who falsified voter registrations.
Election administrators and academics who monitor the issue said in-person fraud is rare because someone would have to impersonate a registered voter and risk arrest. A 2008 Supreme Court case drew detailed briefs from the federal government, 10 states and other groups that identified only nine potential impersonation cases over the span of several years, according to a tally by the Brennan Center at New York University.
Michael Thielen, executive director of the Republican lawyers group, said its survey was not comprehensive and he believes vote fraud is a serious problem.
"Most of it goes unreported and unprosecuted," he said.
Several election administrators, even those who support ID laws as a barrier to potential fraud, said the rejected ballots in their counties appeared to be legitimate voters who simply did not fulfill their ID obligations.
Donna Sharp, the administrator of elections in Hawkins County, Tenn., said she saw no signs of fraud. Of the seven people who cast absentee ballots, six didn't come in to confirm their identity. Sharp knew one of them personally.
But Sharp said she supports the ID law despite initial concerns. She said most people were aware of the requirement and able to provide their identification, and she thought the rules provided an extra layer of security.
"We want to protect those voters who do need their vote to count — the people who are doing things in an honest manner," Sharp said.
Some administrators speculated that voters who didn't return to verify their identity may have deduced that the ballot wouldn't alter the outcome of the election.
Indiana, Georgia and Tennessee require that voters provide a photo ID at the polls. Failing that, voters can use a temporary ballot that can be verified later, when they must meet with local elections administrators to sort out the matter.
Pennsylvania is putting a similar law in place for the November election. Kansas has comparable rules. Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin are moving in that direction of having rules set for this year if they survive court challenges and federal approval.
Virginia had a rule allowing voters without proper ID to sign an identity statement; a false claim could make them subject to felony punishment. Under a new law awaiting final approval from the Justice Department, voters who do not bring proper ID, which doesn't necessarily have to have a photo, must use a temporary ballot and later provide ID to the local election board.
Georgia had 873 rejected temporary ballots due to ID from the 2008 general election while only about 300 ID temporary ballots were counted. The state also had 64 ID-related temporary ballots tossed in the presidential primary this year.
Indiana counties that maintained information from the 2008 election reported having hundreds of ballots tossed, and more than 100 more were rejected in the primary this year. The numbers can vary greatly depending on the election: Tippecanoe County, for example, had no ID-related temporary ballots excluded in the primary vote this year compared with 47 in the 2008 general election.
Tennessee had 154 blocked ballots in its March primary.
Keesha Gaskins, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center who has opposed voter ID laws, said she believes the numbers are significant and also underestimate the impact of voter ID laws. She said those numbers don't take into account people who were discouraged from showing up to vote in the first place or who may be turned away by poll workers. Even voters in states with less-strict ID laws may not get the proper explanation about how the process works without ID.
Beyond that, Gaskin said, rejecting even hundreds of ballots in an election is significant.
"These are still people who attempted to vote and who were unable to do so," Gaskins said. "When you compare that to the actual evidence of fraud, the difference is exponential."