COLUMBUS -- In yet another partisan battle, the Ohio House voted 56-38 to approve a bill that would require voters to show a government-issued photo identification card as a condition for walking into a polling booth.
Tempers flared as Republican supporters argued that the bill is necessary to ensure the integrity of the vote.
"We have the credibility of our voting system on the line here,'' said Rep. Ron Young (R., Leroy). "Other states are doing things very similar to this.''
Democrats, however, accused the majority party of moving swiftly to enact the bill to affect an anticipated vote this fall to repeal new restrictions on collective bargaining that they expect Gov. John Kasich to sign into law.
"Don't wave the American flag at me,'' Rep. Bob Hagan (D., Youngstown) told Republicans. "Don't tell me it's about protecting the integrity of the vote. It's about protecting the integrity of your vote in November.''
House Bill 159, which now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate, made it to the full House floor just a little over a week since its introduction. It would narrow the current options that voters have to prove their identities when they cast their ballots in person to a current or expired driver's license, an alternative state identification card, military identification, or a U.S. passport.
Rep. Kurt Schuring (R., North Canton) was the sole Republican to join Democrats in voting against the bill.
Democrats compared it to a "poll tax,'' noting that it costs money to acquire a driver's license or other state government ID.
The new photo ID restrictions would not apply to those who cast absentee ballots by mail. It allows Ohioans who can't afford the cost of acquiring such identification to ask the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for a free card.
"Anyone who shows up and says they're indigent, they're probably going to get a state ID,'' said Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), one of the bill's sponsors. "I'd be surprised if they didn't.''
Current law allows voters to also show nonphoto voter registration cards and utility bills and bank statements that bear their addresses.
Democrats estimated that nearly 900,000 voting-age Ohioans -- many of them African Americans, the elderly, poor, students, or homeless -- don't have such an ID today.
Twenty-seven states require some form of identification from voters. Laws in Indiana and Georgia are the most similar to Ohio's proposal, but House Bill 159 is considered more stringent since it does not recognize student identification cards, even if they are issued by a public university.
Although instances of registration and petition fraud were cited, Democrats argued there's been next to no evidence of actual voter fraud in the voting booth.
"I call this the ID-phantom problem bill,'' said Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). "It is, in fact, going to waste a lot of time and millions of dollars in lawsuits to solve a problem that does not exist.''
House Minority Leader Armond Budish (D., Beachwood) said it may not be a coincidence that the bill was introduced after it became clear that voters would be asked to repeal this November an expected state law limiting collective-bargaining rights. That bill is expected to come to a vote in the House next week.
"This bill could possibly be influenced by Senate Bill 5,'' he said. "It could also be because we have the first African-American president up for re-election in 2012.''
The bill is opposed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
"If you talk about voter fraud as a massive problem and you say it over and over in a loud voice, eventually a lot of people will believe it, but that doesn't make it true,'' said Peg Rosenfeld, the League's elections specialist.
The Republican majority shelved several amendments offered by Democrats. Among them was Ms. Fedor's amendment to allow for the counting of absentee ballots if a voter forgets to seal the inside envelope before mailing it or if the envelope becomes unsealed in transit.
"This is a real problem that needs to be solved,'' Ms. Fedor said.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com, or 614-221-0496.