One year out from the 2012 election, House Democrats are joining in on the newly ramped-up battle over voter ID laws.
In a letter sent Thursday to the secretaries of state of all 50 states, all but two of the 198-member House Democratic conference urged the officials to “put partisan considerations aside and serve as advocates for enfranchisement.”
“Voting hours, voting sites, identification requirements, voter registration regulation and access to mail ballots should not be used as weapons to achieve a preferred electoral outcome,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was spearheaded by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“Whether it is an elderly woman unable to locate her birth certificate for purposes of establishing her U.S. citizenship on election day or a college student whose school-issued identification is not among the IDs deemed acceptable for voting or a disabled veteran whose local polling place has not yet been made accessible, public officials on all levels of government should be striving to facilitate their right to vote, not make it more difficult,” the members wrote.
The letter comes as more than a dozen states have enacted changes to their voting laws in the year since Republicans made sweeping gains in the 2010 midterms.
Those changes -- which include new laws requiring voters to show photo ID or proof of citizenship, eliminating early voting and tightening restrictions on voter registration drives – could affect as many as 5 million voters, according to a report last month by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. The center opposes the new laws.
Despite the Democrats’ argument in their letter that both sides should return to a “bipartisan consensus,” the voting law debate is increasingly being waged along partisan lines.
Republicans defend the new ID laws as necessary to protect against voter fraud and point to examples such as the ACORN scandal, as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) did in a floor speech Wednesday night.
Democrats contend, as Hoyer did Thursday at a news conference with a dozen other lawmakers, that the new voter ID measures represent “an impediment to solve a problem that we don’t believe exists.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that President Obama’s reelection campaign has launched its own effort to counter the new Republican-backed laws.
Hoyer said House Democrats will take a “strong stand” on the issue and accused those who support the new voter ID laws of engaging in “voter profiling” to make it more difficult for minorities, young people and other groups to participate in elections.
Several lawmakers at the event, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chairwoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.), spoke of grandparents and great-grandparents who had been denied the right to vote.
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that “people were beaten, arrested and even killed trying to defend the right to vote; we must not go back.”
“The right to vote is precious,” Lewis said. “It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society. We must continue to speak up and speak out to protect this simple constitutional right.”
Hoyer and the others did not mention Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who last month created an uproar among some congressional Democrats when he penned an op-ed in the Montgomery Advertiser announcing his support for voter ID laws.
Asked after the event about Davis’s stand on voting laws, Hoyer responded: “We have a different opinion.”
The two Democratic House members who did not sign the letter were Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), who is still recovering from her wounds after being shot in the head at a constituent event in January; and Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.).
A spokesman said that Cooper is planning on sending his own letter to the state secretary of state that is “nearly identical” to the one released Thursday but that omits the language referring to local election officials being “seen as partisan combatants, rather than stewards of our democracy” out of concern that the line would unfairly criticize those officials.
This post has been updated.