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America votes 2014: The heated battle over access to the polls

Could new voter ID laws affect elections in states with very close races?

As the midterm elections loom, contradictory rulings on stricter voter-ID laws have been issued in the nation’s courts.

In Texas last week a U.S. district judge ruled that the state’s new voter ID law is unconstitutional, akin to a poll tax, intended to discriminate. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote, “The court holds that [the law] creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”

This week that decision was put on hold by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, saying there isn’t enough time to retrain election workers.

Unless the Supreme Court steps in, the law will be in effect in Texas on Election Day.

The new rules require people to present an ID at the polls in order to vote and tightly restrict which IDs are acceptable. For example, driver’s licenses and concealed gun permits are usually OK, but student IDs, even from state schools, for the most part are not.

Republicans supporting the laws say they are essential for stopping voter fraud. Opponents say there is no evidence of widespread problems.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said, “It’s always the same argument. Voter fraud that they’re unable to produce, but the fear of voter fraud.”

Wisconsin is going through a similar battle over its new voter-ID law. Last winter the state legislature passed new rules on eligible IDs. Those against it say the law will directly affect many minorities and low-income voters who don’t have proper identification. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out on the issue in June.

“By restricting access and decreasing voter participation,” he said, “laws such as those in Wisconsin would shrink rather than expand access to the franchise.” He added, “This is inconsistent not only with our history but with our ideals as a nation, a nation founded on the principle that all citizens are entitled to equal opportunity, equal representation and equal rights.”

Last week the Supreme Court blocked implementation of Wisconsin’s law, also citing a lack of time to train poll workers. “It could have wreaked havoc,” said Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett.

Under the new law, an estimated 300,000 Wisconsinites don’t have valid photo IDs to vote. In Texas, the NAACP says, more than 600,000 registered voters will be affected, and those hurt will “disportionately be people of color.”

What is behind the push for more rigid voting rules?

What are the facts behind the argument that these laws prevent voter fraud?

Will these new rules stand up to legal scrutiny?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

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