DES MOINES - Secretary of State Matt Schultz jumped into one of the most partisan issues in electoral politics last week when he introduced a new voter photo identification bill, but he did so with a key change.
Unique to his proposal is the idea that one voter can vouch for another in place of photo identification, something Schultz hopes will blunt criticism of his plan.
Indeed, Schultz used the word "bipartisan" no fewer than 14 times during his Statehouse news conference and in answering questions from the media. When pressed, however, he acknowledged that he had bipartisan input, and not necessarily bipartisan support, for his plan.
"Some of the issues we were concerned about, I do see those addressed in the legislation," said Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz, who served on a panel of five Republicans and five Democrats Schultz called together last year.
"But I do not support the voter ID legislation."
Proponents of voter photo ID laws say they cut down on fraud and make elections more secure. Opponents say they unfairly target minorities, the poor and the elderly, all classes of people who are less likely to have a photo ID.
Chris Larimer, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said it's a topic that gets a lot of attention because it deals with an issue that's so close to the American identity.
"Voters are extraordinarily sensitive to any notion of unfairness in the political process, particularly on voting," Larimer said. "Even if they don't vote regularly, citizens want to know the process is designed in a way to prevent others from cheating the system."
Still, Larimer said, "The real impact of these laws is unknown as this point."
According the National Conference of State Legislatures, there have been almost 1,000 voter identification bills introduced in 46 states since 2001, and the group says it was the hottest topic in election law in 2011 with legislation being introduced in 34 states, including Iowa.
Currently, there are 31 states that have some sort of voter identification law and 15 of those require or phase in a photo identification requirement.
Schultz's proposal is less-restrictive than the one championed by House Republicans last year. That one, House File 95, was never picked up in the Senate. Highlights of Shultz's proposal include:
-- Allowing students to use a valid school ID as long as it has an expiration date printed on it.
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-- A provision that the state waive the cost of a $5 state-issued photo identification that would meet the proposal's requirement.
-- A provision that allows a person to vouch for a voter who doesn't have photo identification by affidavit.
"There are several states where a poll worker can vouch for a voter without ID, but I don't know of another state that currently allows a voter to vouch for another voter," said Jennie Browser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, who specializes in electoral issues.
In Alabama, for example, two poll workers can vouch for the voter if they know who the voter is. Missouri has the same provisions as long as the two poll workers are from different parties. And the Alaska and Indiana laws allow a single poll worker to vouch for a voter who doesn't have photo identification.
Support for voter ID laws generally falls along partisan lines, with Republicans generally in favor and Democrats generally against.
Browser said of the states that have passed voter identification laws, only Rhode Island's law - which requires identification now and photo identification for voters by Jan. 1, 2014 - was passed with a Democratic majority in both chambers. Meanwhile, Republican legislatures in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina passed voter ID laws but Democratic governors vetoed the bills.
"I believe every voter should have a photo ID," said Robert Ussery, state director of the Iowa Minutemen.
Ussery said that without strict photo identification laws, the process can be exploited by illegal aliens. He cited an article from the August 2008 issue of the Heritage Foundation magazine titled "Illegal Immigrants Are Voting in American Elections" and one from a 2008 issue in The Social Contact titled "How Many Non-Citizen Voters? Enough to make a difference" as evidence that illegal immigrants are voting.
"Maybe not so much in Iowa, but it's happening," Ussery said.
That's the point, said Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker, who also served as one of the Democrats on Schultz's panel.
He thinks voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem in the Hawkeye State.
He said the only case of voter fraud in Clinton County he knows of happened in 2008 when a felon tried to vote but was caught. The case, he said, didn't involve fake identification or anything, just someone disobeying the law.
"I don't agree with (the photo ID proposal,)" Van Lancker said. "But if they do want one, (Schultz's) proposal is a good starting point. Better than the one last year."