As Republican governors and legislators across the country push forward with ambitious and sometimes controversial budget-cutting agendas, the GOP in many states is also quietly encouraging another controversial measure: Voter ID.
The Associated Press reported this weekend that Republicans are moving forward with such measures – which can require people to show identification or swear an oath of their identity when they vote – in about half of the 50 states. And in many of them, the bills have a better chance of becoming law than in a long time.
While the big new Republican majorities and GOP governors give Voter ID advocates new hope to pass these bills, the efforts do carry some political risk. Voter ID bills, often compared by opponents to modern-day poll taxes, are characterized by critics as thinly veiled efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority populations who tend to vote Democratic.
And for Republicans already dealing with some dicey budget debates, the Voter ID battles are causing a stir.
But can Democrats stand in their way?
In Texas, the badly overmatched state House Democrats last week fought tooth-and-nail for 11 hours against a Voter ID bill that Gov. Rick Perry (R) has put on the fast track. But they eventually lost.
The issue has been simmering for months in North Carolina, a state with a significant black population.
And even during the long budget battle in Wisconsin, state Senate Republicans there made Voter ID one of their first priorities.
Among the other states taking up the issue are Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and Ohio. In all four of those states, Republicans advanced their Voter ID bills last week. Those states look to join the eight states that require photo ID and the 19 that require some form of ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Tova Wang, a senior fellow at the public policy group Demos and opponent of the Voter ID laws, said the new efforts often go further than even the most stringent of the current laws. And she said the GOP efforts in upwards of a dozen states stand a good chance at passing.
“I don’t think we’ve seen an attack like this on voter’s rights in many years,” Wang said.
In spite of this large-scale effort, the Voter ID issue isn’t exactly front-of-mind for most American voters. Polling on the topic is piecemeal and not all that reliable. But what it does show is that opposition to Voter ID, if it exists, is far below the surface.
Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls have both tested the issue in recent years, finding huge majorities supporting the idea of requiring identification to vote.
The problem for Democrats in this battle is that they have to be able to place the issue in what they believe is the correct context to have any chance, and that takes some time.
And that’s why Republicans are basically able to fasttrack these bills through right now, says Lorraine Minnite, research director at Project Vote, which has been speaking out against the Voter ID bills.
“I don’t see a big political risk for [Republicans], which is I think why they are winning the issue,” Minnite said.
Opponents say the bill disenfranchises poor and minority voters — a charge that GOP supporters dispute.
If that is the case, the effect is so small that it’s hard to measure. A study by Minnite and Columbia University’s Bob Erickson from 2009 shows that any change is nearly impossible to detect using currently available data.
But since the voters who might be excluded are some of the most reliable Democratic voters, it’s a battle that Democratic legislators tend to see as worth fighting.
There will be no large-scale protests over Voter ID this year, but Democrats say they will do their best to push back. Look for them to note that the conservative activist Koch brothers have been involved in funding Voter ID efforts and to wage an aggressive public relations campaign, state by state.
There’s little evidence to suggest they will be able to stop the effort though, as emboldened Republican majorities press forward. Still, as Wisconsin has shown us, even a party facing a staggering majority can raise a fuss.