By Colleen Jenkins
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Democratic claims that a large number of Americans could be prevented from voting because of photo identification laws are probably overstated based on evidence from Georgia and Indiana, the two states where the laws have been in place for multiple elections, Reuters found.
Data and numerous interviews by Reuters reporters also suggest there is little evidence to bolster Republican assertions that ID laws are needed to combat rampant voter fraud.
While some election officials and experts cautioned it was still too early to determine the impact of the laws, Reuters found higher voter turnout since they took effect in the two states; few people casting provisional ballots because they lacked IDs; and limited anecdotal evidence of people facing major obstacles in voting.
Both states have given out thousands of free state photo IDs to those without driver's licenses, and both allow absentee voting as a way around the photo ID laws.
Photo ID laws have been hotly debated this year, with Attorney General Eric Holder calling them a "poll tax" during a speech in July to the NAACP, a reference to the late 19th and early 20th century laws in the South requiring poor blacks to pay a fee to vote. Some Democrats have voiced the fear that ID laws could cost President Barack Obama the election.
But the laws' impact has been blunted by the courts, which have prevented four states - Texas, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Pennsylvania - from applying the laws this year. Eleven states have some form of photo ID law in effect this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but only Florida and New Hampshire are considered swing states.
Even if all the states had been allowed to put the new laws into effect, the evidence from Indiana and Georgia suggests the impact would be less than critics feared.
Michael Kang, a law professor at Emory University who has consulted with the Obama campaign on election laws, said photo ID laws do not prevent people from voting if there is good voter education and people take steps to comply.
"I think in the end, some of the controversy may be overblown, and it's not clear at all that it will have a significant effect on the election," said Kang, who was not speaking for the Obama campaign.
Indiana's law has been in effect since the election of 2006 and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. Georgia's law went into effect in 2007 after court challenges and was first used statewide in the presidential election of 2008.
Voters in both states are required to produce a government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license at the polls. For those without one, both states offer free photo IDs with proof of identification, according to state election authorities.
A major Democratic criticism of the laws is that they suppress voter turnout among the young, minorities and the elderly, who are less likely to have required photo identification and are more likely to vote Democratic. Yet the opposite has occurred in Indiana and Georgia, where turnout and registration have mostly increased.
In Georgia, which keeps statistics by race, a record number of African Americans voted in the election of 2008, when Obama was elected the first black president. Black turnout, which reached almost 76 percent of registered voters, was four percentage points higher than 2004, before the ID law.
Critics of the laws see 2008 as an anomaly because many blacks were determined to vote for Obama.
Black turnout was up in the 2010 Georgia midterm elections as well, increasing seven percentage points from the comparable 2006 midterm, when the ID law was not in effect.
Black voter registration in Georgia increased 30 percent in 2008 compared with two years earlier.
In all cases, the gains outstripped growth in Georgia's black population.
"I don't think it has hampered anybody from being able to let their voice be heard," Georgia's Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, said.
Indiana does not break down turnout by race. But in two counties with non-white populations of more than 40 percent, Lake and Marion, turnout rose in 2008. In Lake County, it increased 16 percentage points compared with 2004, to 71 percent of registered voters.
In Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, turnout increased by one percentage point in the 2008 election, to 55 percent, compared with the 2004 presidential election, and voter registration there increased 18 percent.
In the two midterm elections since the Indiana law has been in force, 2006 and 2010, turnout in Marion and Lake counties also increased compared with the 2002 election before the law.
FEW TURNED AWAY
Other possible measures of the law's impact are the number of people turned away from polls and the number who cast "provisional" ballots, which could be counted later if valid ID is presented.
In Georgia, 2,244 provisional ballots have been cast owing to a lack of photo ID since 2008. Of those, 1,586 people did not return with proper identification within two days of the election, as required, and their ballots were not counted.
Kemp speculated some did not return because the races they cared about were not close, or they did not want to make another trip to an elections office, or they were committing fraud and did not want to be caught.
"It's hard to untangle ... what's going on there," said Kang, the Emory professor. "But I think in the end, that's a pretty small number of votes."
Helen Butler, executive director of the Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda, an Atlanta voting advocacy group, said even a small number of people disenfranchised is too many.
In Indiana, state officials said 3,767 provisional ballots had been filled out since the law went into effect in 2006, of which 2,056 were not counted. Voters there have 10 days to present an acceptable ID.
A Reuters reporter observed for several hours while 2,047 people, mostly African Americans, voted early on Sunday, October 28, at the Marion County Clerk's office in Indianapolis. County Clerk Elizabeth White, a Democrat, said five were turned away because they did not have acceptable photo ID.
Among the five were a couple who had old voter registration cards without pictures and out-of-state driver's licenses. An out-of-state license is not acceptable in Indiana.
Adrian Duerson, 23, a student at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, was denied a ballot because he had lost his driver's license. He presented a receipt indicating he was replacing the license along with a birth certificate and college photo ID. A private college ID is not allowed in Indiana, but voters can use a state university ID with expiration date.
"I understand those are the rules," said Duerson, an African American, adding that he would go to get documents he needed.
VOTER ID OBSTACLES
Some critics of the laws have cited people who do not own a vehicle as a rough measure of the number of voters who may not have a driver's license and thus face an extra burden to vote in person. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the years 2006-2010, 232,628 Georgia households, or 6.7 percent, and 153,719 Indiana households, or 6.2 percent did not have a vehicle.
In Georgia, one way to meet the ID requirement is to get a free photo ID from the state. Officials said 28,648 cards have been issued for voting since 2006.
In Indiana, where state IDs have been used for decades, the government does not keep track of how many are for voting purposes. The BMV said it had issued almost 1.1 million new, amended or duplicate free state photo IDs since it began keeping records in 2007, not including driver's licenses.
Reuters reporters did find some cases of people with unusual circumstances who encountered voter ID obstacles.
World War II veteran William S. Benford, 93, of Atlanta said he went to a Georgia Department of Driver Services office in 2008 to get a free voter ID card with his Social Security card, Army discharge papers and local transit card but was told he needed a birth certificate. He was misinformed, as a birth certificate is not required.
Benford, who was born in rural Georgia and raised by foster parents, does not have a birth certificate and has never had a driver's license. Although he is a longtime registered voter and tried to vote absentee, his ballot was returned inexplicably.
Betty Lockett, 103 and blind from cataracts, moved from Illinois to Hammond, Indiana this year and wanted to vote. Relatives helped her apply, but state officials would not accept her Illinois ID, asking for a passport or birth certificate. She was born in Mississippi in 1909 before the state began providing birth certificates.
"The first time I voted in Illinois was the first time I ever voted without being afraid I was going to get lynched. In Mississippi often we wouldn't even look at a polling station for fear of getting caught," Lockett said.
Her relatives pieced together an identity for her using Medicaid documents and paperwork related to her husband's railroad pension, and Lockett has voted.
Renee Snead, a director at Central Outreach and Advocacy Center for the homeless in Atlanta, said there is confusion among some voters over the ID requirements.
"People give up," Snead said. "They just move on to things that are higher priority."
Indiana's absentee voting rules require that voters state why they cannot appear at the polls.
Georgia has relaxed its absentee voter requirements to allow anyone to get a ballot without a reason.
"In Georgia, if people disagree (with the photo ID law) or they don't want to participate, they can vote by mail," said Secretary of State Kemp.
Kemp acknowledged that most of the state's voter fraud now involves absentee ballots rather than in-person voting. Georgia officials could not point to a single documented instance of voter impersonation before or after the law took effect.
The most prominent recent case of voter fraud in Indiana is not the type of fraud contemplated by politicians writing the laws. In February, Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White, a Republican who oversaw elections in the state, was required to leave office after he was convicted of offenses including voter fraud for giving a false address of residence while serving on a town council and receiving a government stipend.
"They have created a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," Jim Wieser, a Democratic, and Lake County, Indiana Election Board attorney, said of the fraud argument often cited by Republicans.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Munster, Indiana, Susan Guyett in Indianapolis and David Beasley in Atlanta; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Douglas Royalty)