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Democrats Might Be More Open To Voter ID Laws, Which They've Long Opposed

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Democrats in Congress are still working on a way to strengthen federal voting rights laws. Just this week, they passed along another voting bill in the House. But on one key issue - whether voters need to show ID at the polls - some Democrats are changing their tune. As NPR's Miles Parks reports, it may be due to broad public support.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Roughly a third of states now require photo ID to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And for more than a decade, that has outraged Democrats. While the vast majority of voters have government-issued IDs, millions of eligible voters don't. And importantly, those voters are more likely to be poor, have disabilities or be people of color. Here's then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's an attempt to repress minority voting masquerading as an attempt to end corruption.

PARKS: Also, the widespread fraud the voter ID laws are aimed at stopping has never been shown to exist in the first place. But this summer, the landscape seems to be shifting from fighting mandatory voter ID to a more nuanced argument. Here's Representative James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, on NPR a few weeks ago.

JAMES CLYBURN: We do not oppose voter ID. Every one of us who registered to vote get a voter registration card, and you present their card every time you go to vote. That's voter ID. It's something that's different when you say that a photo on a student card is not good but on a home license is good. And that's what we oppose.

PARKS: And that distinction on what kind of ID is acceptable is where the partisan divide seems to be now. Some Democrats, including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate who will be key for any voting legislation to move forward, say they support voter ID requirements as long as things like student IDs and utility bills are accepted. But Republicans generally want a smaller range of government-issued IDs. Rodney Davis is the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee.

RODNEY DAVIS: I'm just not convinced the Democrats are serious about even debating any of the voter ID issues that many Republicans would support.

PARKS: One challenge for Democrats is that voter ID laws have long been popular with Americans. A recent Monmouth University poll, for instance, found 80% approval for photo ID laws nationally. Charles Stewart runs MIT's election data and science lab.

CHARLES STEWART: Regardless of how you poll, voters like a requirement for photo ID. I mean, it's kind of a no-brainer for a large swath of the American public, including most Democrats.

PARKS: Advocates argue that most people don't understand just how burdensome it can be to collect all the paperwork and make the trips necessary to get an ID. But Stewart has done polling on the issue for years, and he thinks voters do get it. As someone who doesn't think there should be more barriers to voting, Stewart opposes the laws, but he's also come to the conclusion that he's in the minority. Further, Stewart says there's very little evidence that the laws affect turnout.

STEWART: Most of America put their kids in school. We've got to vaccinate them. We've got to show a birth certificate. And so, you know, I think the rank-and-file Americans have the experience of - you know, there are times when I have to prove myself, and there are times when I have to do truly hard things. And if somebody can't do those things, then that's just too bad.

PARKS: Even if they don't like it, Democrats may be accepting that as a political reality as well.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "GREEN AISLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.