On Indiana's primary day, Rep. Julia Carson shoved her congressional identification card in a pocket, ran out of her house and raced down the street to be at her polling site when it opened at 6 a.m. The Democrat, seeking to represent Indianapolis for a sixth term, showed the card to a poll worker, who told her it was unacceptable under a new state law that requires every voter to show proof of identity.
The law compels voters to show an ID, issued by Indiana or the federal government, with a photograph and an expiration date. Carson's card was for the 109th Congress, but did not say when the session ends. "I just thought I was carrying the right thing -- if you have a card that has a picture and shows it is current," she said.
In the end, the poll worker telephoned a boss, and Carson was allowed to vote for herself in the five-way primary. But her close call in the light turnout of the May primary, she and other Democrats say, foreshadows turmoil and votes that are not counted when the nation goes to the polls for Tuesday's midterm elections.
Indiana will have the country's strictest voter identification law in effect on Election Day. The 2005 picture ID law, however, puts it among a dozen states that have tightened requirements lately that voters display some form of identification at the polls. The laws have spawned partisan warring, lawsuits and confusion that election experts predict could influence the outcome of some close elections.
In the Washington area, Virginia requires all voters to show identification, although it does not need to have a picture. Maryland and the District require first-time voters who registered by mail to bring identification, such as a driver's license or utility bill, to the polls.
While the local laws have not been challenged, new voter ID laws nationally are the most widespread, and most bitterly disputed, of several types of voting procedures that states have adopted after the chaotic 2000 presidential election. The procedures include statewide electronic databases of registered voters, which critics allege have in a few states improperly knocked out eligible people. In another procedure, Ohio and Florida -- battleground states that have produced recent contested elections -- have placed tighter reins on groups that work to register new voters.
Such rules, together with updated voting-machine technology, were touted as means to modernize and bolster public confidence in the election system. They have quickly led to new struggles over voting rights. Republicans and their allies assert that the identification requirements and other rules will lessen voting fraud. Democrats and their supporters contend the changes are ploys to suppress voting among poor, elderly, minority and disabled citizens, who are prone to support Democratic candidates.
"We believe photo ID is the kind of confidence-building measure that is warranted in light of past fraud," said Mark "Thor" Hearne, the chief election lawyer for the 2004 Bush campaign and now counsel to the American Center for Voting Rights, a conservative advocacy group. He predicted the identification laws will prompt higher turnout.
‘A laboratory of democracy’
Mary G. Wilson, national president of the League of Women Voters, said identification laws, particularly ones requiring photo IDs, are "odious" and added: "There is very little evidence there's been any kind of voting by people who are ineligible to vote. We view this as basically another unnecessary hurdle voters are being put through."
Tuesday's election will be "a laboratory of democracy," providing the first major test of which view is right, said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan project that tracks election reform.
In 2002, as Congress debated how to respond to the disputed presidential election two years earlier, lawmakers disagreed over how much to make voters prove who they are. In the end, the Help America Vote Act requires first-time voters who register by mail without an ID to bring identification to the polls. Nearly half the states have tougher laws.
Missouri and Georgia have adopted photo identification laws similar to Indiana's, although Missouri's has been struck down as unconstitutional and a federal court has halted the Georgia requirements while a lawsuit is underway.
In Arizona, voters are required to bring some form of ID and proof of citizenship. The requirement is being challenged in federal courts, but the Supreme Court stepped in two weeks ago to say that IDs could be required in Tuesday's election before the lawsuits are resolved. The situation has been in even greater flux in Ohio, where opponents of a new ID law sued last week over whether voters using absentee ballots must supply an identification number. Ohio courts flip-flopped on the question before the parties reached a settlement late Wednesday that exempts absentee ballots from the state's ID law for Tuesday's election only.
Indiana's law is also being challenged, by the Indiana Democratic Party and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has indicated it will not decide before Election Day whether to uphold a lower-court ruling that it is constitutional.
Indiana's secretary of state, Todd Rokita, a Republican who made photo IDs part of his platform when he ran for the office, said photo IDs give "a measure of integrity" to an election system that had been continually expanding access to voting since the mid-1960s.
He said that, based on the primary in which Carson's congressional ID card was challenged and a few local special elections, the law "is going very, very well." His office is spending $2 million in federal and state money on advertising about the requirements, including ads targeting bus passengers who do not have cars or driver's licenses.
The law enables people without a driver's license to get a free state ID at Bureau of Motor Vehicle branches. But first they need an official birth certificate and other documents, and some Hoosiers are discovering it is difficult to get one in time.
Jowana Peterson, 51, of Indianapolis lost her wallet with her license inside a few weeks ago. When she went to replace it, she brought a copy of her birth certificate from Chicago, her Social Security card, her ID card from her job as a financial planner and four utility bills. "They turned me out cold," she said, telling her she needed a new birth certificate from Cook County. She has applied, but it has not yet arrived. Because she had signed up to work at the polls on Election Day, she was eligible to get an absentee ballot, but she worries about other would-be voters who cannot get one -- or do not know to ask.
Even so, she says, "I feel pretty cheated. I am an American citizen. I've paid my taxes. I feel the system kind of let me down. It shouldn't be that hard."