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Struggle over voter IDs evokes a bitter past

In Georgia and other states, legislative brawls break out over whether ID rules will prevent fraud or deter voters.

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In this run-down South Carolina border town, up the street from the Repo Depo, Timothy Hardwick is padding his income by selling boiled peanuts from a propane burner on the back of a truck.

As with many Americans, what Mr. Hardwick is missing in wealth is in part eased by his ability to help steer the national body politic at the ballot box. But that sense of endowment, he says, is now at risk. Here in South Carolina and dozens of other states - often with large black or Hispanic populations - a campaign is under way to toughen the voting process by demanding that registered voters flash a picture ID in order to post a ballot.

It's a touchy proposal, especially in the South where many Americans still remember poll taxes and strong-arm techniques that kept blacks from voting. "This will only discourage voting," says the lanky, tattooed Hardwick. "You only have to be a citizen to vote, not a citizen with his face on a card."

Proponents describe the regulations as a bid to defend the election process against abuse. They point to a 2004 Government Accountability Office statistic indicating that from 2000 to 2003, there were 61 probes into election fraud nationwide.

But some liken Republican promotion of tougher rules to Jim Crow-era tactics. Across the South, black legislators have openly wept and rattled shackles, even in the halls of state capitols, at the prospect. Democrats are defending the notion that the potential for fraud is less damaging than an infringement on the full feeling of suffrage. Caught in the crossfire are perhaps 6 percent of the population who may have trouble meeting the new requirement, despite being otherwise eligible to stand up and be counted at the ballot box.

Voter IDs "are the most bitterly partisan fight in the area of election reform," says Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in voting rights. "Democrats see this as an attempt to disenfranchise poor minority voters, and Republicans see it as rooting out fraud. It's the place where the access-versus-integrity debate is at its most heated."

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