By her own estimation, state Rep. Sue Tibbs has introduced a voter identification bill so many times in the state Legislature that she's lost count.
"Either every year or every other year," the five-term Broken Arrow Republican said by phone last week from the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, where lawmakers will soon decide the fate of her latest voter ID bill.
All those previous efforts met with defeat, but Tibbs is confident this is the year for her legislation.
"They weren't successful because the Democrats were in control [of the state Senate] and didn't want it," she said. "It just died its usual death."
Tibbs' HB1037 would require anyone wishing to vote to present photo identification. That ID could be issued by the state or federal government, a county, a municipality or a federally recognized American Indian tribe. If a would-be voter does not have a photo ID, he or she would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot after signing an oath in the precinct book. Anyone signing a false oath could be charged with a felony.
The difference this year, Tibbs believes, is that Republicans claimed their first-ever majority last fall in the Oklahoma Senate after taking control of the state House of Representatives many years ago; her legislation has become a priority of legislative leaders.
But opposition to Tibbs' bill -- and to a similar bill introduced by Bartlesville Republican John Ford in the Senate -- remains strong. The state chapters of several organizations are fighting its passage, including the AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.
Sheila Swearingen, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa, said her organization has been trying to mobilize its supporters to voice their opposition to Tibbs' bill, which was approved by the House Rules Committee on Feb. 4. The bill could go before the full House for a vote as soon as this week. If approved, it would then go to the Senate.
"Generally, we oppose this based on seeing it as a potential barrier to the ballot box and looking at what is required to get a photo ID," Swearingen said, adding that a recent experience she had helping her son get a driver's license illustrated how difficult that task can be. "If you're elderly or poor, it can become a barrier."
Many states across the country have either adopted or considered voter ID bills during the past several years, resulting in a hodge-podge of requirements from state to state. But in almost every case, the votes have gone down along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measures and Democrats opposing them, building the argument that the issue is a strictly partisan one.
"It may be, but I don't see why," Tibbs said. "One of the arguments people have used against it in the past is that they say people won't stand in line to vote. But I think we saw in the last election that's not true. If people want to vote, they will stand in line."
Swearingen does not believe the issue is a partisan one, either, but for a different reason.
"The league is a nonprofit organization; and I would have to say we would not have taken a position on this if it was a partisan issue," she said.
"We were founded right after women were guaranteed the right to vote, and our purpose is to encourage participation in democracy by ensuring free and open access to the polls."
The league has issued an op-ed authored by Swearingen and co-president Jay Engle that outlines its opposition to the bill, which is largely based on the charge that it would disenfranchise a significant number of voters. They claim 18 percent of Americans older than 65 don't have a photo ID, a percentage that rises rapidly for those older than 75. They also maintain that a quarter of all African-Americans don't have a photo ID, that 10 percent those with disabilities don't have a photo ID and that 15 percent of low-income voters also do not.
The league also maintains that there is no evidence of voter fraud, longer lines at precincts will result and precinct officials will be harder to recruit, given the requirement to inspect voter ID and match it to the registration.
"It is part of a national initiative to solve a virtually non-existent problem," the op-ed states of Tibbs' bill.
But Tibbs rejected those claims, especially the notion that voter fraud is not an issue.
"There is a problem, and we can prove there is a problem," she said.
She also denied the bill would disenfranchise voters, citing a Jan. 30, 2009, Wall Street Journal editorial that indicated voting by registered Democrats increased 6.1 percent in one state that had adopted a voter ID bill.
Two dozen states have some sort of voter ID requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with Oklahoma and Mississippi among those considering those measures this session. But only seven of those states specify that a photograph must be shown to prove identification, according to the organization, with the other 17 states accepting additional forms of ID that do not necessarily include a photo. The most recent state to enact a voter ID law was New Mexico, which in 2008 adopted a law that allows a voter to satisfy the ID requirement by stating his or her name, address as registered and year of birth, according to the NCSL.
The many voter ID laws that have been passed have also been challenged repeatedly in court. According to the NCSL, six states that passed such laws in recent years have had to defend them in court. In many of those cases, those challenging the laws were initially successful, but had those victories overturned on appeal.
Tibbs said her bill was not modeled after a successful voter ID bill passed elsewhere.
"It's just one we felt was fair and equitable to everyone," she said. "I think a lot of people have lost faith in the process, and this will restore that faith."
Ford's bill earned the approval of the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 16 and is headed for a vote before the full Senate. Despite some differences in their measures, Tibbs said she and Ford are working together to secure passage of a voter ID bill.
If Tibbs' bill is passed and signed by Gov. Brad Henry, it would take effect Nov. 1.
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