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Struggle over voter IDs evokes a bitter past

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Today 20 states require some kind of identification, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate, or utility bill, at the polls. Florida, South Carolina, South Dakota, Hawaii, and Louisiana demand a government-issued photo ID, but officials there allow voters to sign an affidavit to vouch for their identity. Now requirements are getting tougher. Twenty-five voter ID bills were filed this year, with legislative brawls breaking out behind every one. Georgia, Arizona, and Indiana lawmakers passed even tougher restrictions this year, limiting the forms of ID voters can use.

Big battles are under way in Texas and Ohio. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle (D) vetoed a voter ID bill late last month, citing its potential effect on some 100,000 elderly voters in the Badger State.

Part of the debate has to do with the fact that while the US Constitution extends voting rights to all Americans, many state constitutions treat voting as a privilege. Though no panacea, "voter ID cards certainly add an element of proof and authenticity to the election process," says Harold Stanley, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and author of "Vital Statistics in American Politics."

Indeed, many Americans find it shocking that it's possible to bring simply a utility bill, as has been the case in Georgia up to now, or even no identification at all, to many polls in order to cast a vote.

"There's no reason to not address the issue," says Erick Erickson, a Macon, Ga., political consultant who helped draft the tough new Georgia law. "I have to have a photo ID to cash a check, rent a movie, enter a federal building, go to a courthouse - why not have a photo ID when I go into a poll to ensure the integrity of the ballot?"

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