Democrats Seek Federal Probe Into Restrictive State Voter ID Laws

New restrictive voter ID laws in a number of states could disenfranchise voters across the country next year.

Led by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a number of Senate Democrats are seeking a federal Justice Department investigation into new voter identification requirements that are under consideration or recently signed into law in several states that the lawmakers and others say could potentially disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters.

These voter ID laws, in Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas and elsewhere, have come under increasing scrutiny. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently alleged that these laws are being engineered by Republicans in the states to to prevent key parts of President Obama’s political coalition — including African-Americans, Latinos and young people — from being able to vote next year.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Bennet—along with Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Begich of Alaska, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Patty Murray of Washington State, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Tom Udall of New Mexico—expressed serious concerns about voter identification laws, which could disenfranchise American voters.

“These measures have the potential to block millions of eligible American voters without addressing any problem commensurate with this kind of restriction on voting rights. Voting is the foundation of our democracy, and we urge you to protect the voting rights of Americans by using the full power of the Department of Justice to review these voter identification laws and scrutinize their implementation,” the senators write in their letter sent Wednesday.

Since January, voter ID laws have been passed in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee; Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are also considering proposals.

These laws have the potential to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters and disproportionately affect particular populations, the senators note. Studies have shown that as high as 11 percent of eligible voters nationwide do not have a government-issued ID. This percentage is higher among seniors, racial minorities, low-income voters and students.

As Dionne pointed out in his column published earlier this month, research has turned up few cases of the kind of voter fraud photo ID laws would prevent. Voter impersonation already is punishable by up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines under federal law, the senators say.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the federal Justice Department is granted significant authority to review laws before they are implemented in covered jurisdictions. Covered jurisdictions have the burden of proof to establish that changes in their laws will not have a discriminatory impact on minority voters. In states not covered by Section 5, Justice can exercise vigilance in overseeing whether these laws are implemented in a way that discriminates against protected classes in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Federal law enforcement also has authority under the Voting Rights Act to require that all individual’s qualified to vote in a jurisdiction be held to the same standards, practices and procedures.

Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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