Seven other states ask voters for a photo ID — but will allow people without them to cast regular ballots under certain circumstances, such as showing other forms of identification, signing an affidavit or being vouched for by a voter with ID. These states are Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota. (A new law in Alabama will require photo IDs beginning in 2014, but the state has not yet asked the Justice Department to review the law for compliance with the Voting Rights Act.)
Goal to reduce fraud
Sixteen states have laws requiring voters to show a non-photo ID at the polls. Acceptable documents vary by state, ranging from a voter registration or Social Security card to a utility bill or gun permit.
Supporters of strict photo ID laws argue that since most people have or can get IDs, requiring them will cut down on voter fraud and raise public confidence in elections.
Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, disputes the Brennan Center predictions: "I don't think photo ID laws are going to affect people over 50 at all." States that require photo IDs are making them available free, removing any barriers to voting, he said. "Five years from now, after the laws are in place without problems, people will say, 'Why did we make such a big deal about this?' "
Opponents warn that strict photo ID laws will depress turnout and increase cynicism in elections if eligible voters are turned away simply because they lack a photo ID. While an ID itself may be free, voters — especially women — often must purchase copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees and other documents to show name changes.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said photo ID laws would only stop someone from impersonating a voter. "It's more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."
Voter laws under fire
The Obama reelection campaign, the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic groups have been mobilizing to fight the new voter ID laws. AARP Foundation Litigation has been involved in lawsuits challenging voting laws in several states, including an Indiana photo ID law case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Among those blocked from voting by that Indiana statute in 2008 were a dozen nuns in their 80s and 90s from South Bend, Ind. The high court upheld the law though it left open the possibility of a later challenge.
"AARP continues to be very troubled by voter ID laws," said Daniel B. Kohrman, an attorney with the AARP Foundation. "An older person whose passport has expired, whose driver's license has expired, who has to go to the trouble of digging out a birth certificate may just say to heck with it."
State AARP offices are working to inform voters and help them get the documents they need to obtain IDs. AARP supports measures making voter ID laws more fair for older people, including the use of sworn statements to affirm a voter's identity at the polls; advance training of poll workers; and free voter IDs for registered voters and others for whom cost is a burden. Groups on both sides will be closely watching the polls in November with an eye to future lawsuits.
As for Donna Jean Suggs, her story has a happy ending. Thanks to the persistence of a physician and a lawyer in Sumter, Suggs finally got a state-issued photo ID last summer.
"Now I can vote," Suggs said. "I have a whole new life."
Also of interest: Voter education guide to the 2012 election.
Marsha Mercer is a freelance journalist in Northern Virginia.