In an early sign of Republican muscle-flexing in the reordered Alaska Legislature, an Anchorage House member says he plans to revive a dormant bill to require Alaskans to show a photo ID to vote.
"It'll be one of the first bills we hear," said Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee.
Voter photo ID laws in other states were hugely controversial in this fall's national elections because poor, elderly and minorities are less likely than other voters to have photo identification like a driver license; those same groups are also more likely to vote Democratic. Judges in two states with strict photo ID requirements, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, held off enforcement of those laws, at least for this election.
Photo ID laws have been pushed as a way to prevent voter fraud by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization that promotes conservative model legislation.
In Alaska, where photo-bearing licenses aren't even necessary to drive in 294 villages, towns and communities off the highway system, such a requirement could affect thousands of voters.
"That's going to be depriving a lot of people from the opportunity to vote," said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel. "For the state to say that they require an ID in order to allow people to vote, that's a bunch of BS -- strictly BS."
Lynn introduced a photo voter ID law, House Bill 162, in 2011. Even though it was referred to his own committee and the House Judiciary Committee, where he served as a member, it never got a hearing during the two-year life of the 27th Legislature.
"It didn't get a hearing because I had other priorities," Lynn said in a recent interview.
But even if Lynn's bill had passed the Republican-dominated House, it would have faced a skeptical review in the Senate, where Democrats in the ruling bipartisan coalition were chairmen and vice chairmen of both the Senate State Affairs Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee.
Not any more.
For the 2012 election, the Republican-dominated Redistricting Board changed the election map and voters changed the Legislature. Enough Republicans were elected to the Senate that they were able to form their own majority for the 28th Legislature, set to convene Jan. 15. Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, is the incoming chairman of State Affairs. Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, will chair the Judiciary Committee. Both are strong conservatives and members of ALEC, as is Lynn.
Lynn said he wasn't using a model ALEC bill, but he "may do some research with ALEC materials."
Lynn says the latest version of his bill is being drafted by the Legislature's legal staff and is not yet final. His previous bill would have required the Elections Division or some other agency to issue free picture ID cards to anyone who lacked one and is "indigent." The bill left intact current law allowing an election official who knows a voter to waive the picture ID requirement and would allow someone without proper ID to vote a questioned ballot.
Lynn said he knows of no cases of someone assuming the identity of another to commit voter fraud in Alaska but thought it was wise "to take precautions."
"I think precautions are prudent to guard the electoral process," he said. "The electoral process is one of the most important things that we have, from the president all the way down to the state House."
He compared it to putting a lock on a door.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, said she knew of only one person in Alaska who voted using a fraudulent identity: former Anchorage police officer Rafael Mora-Lopez, a Mexican living illegally in the U.S. Mora-Lopez masqueraded as Rafael Alberto Espinoza, a U.S. citizen, until he was arrested in 2011 and fired from the police department, where he had been an officer for six years.
Voter fraud was only one of Mora-Lopez' problems. He pleaded guilty to federal charges of passport fraud and illegally claiming to be a citizen, and to a state charge of filing fraudulent Permanent Fund dividend applications.
Mora-Lopez had many picture IDs, including a passport and an Alaska driver license -- he was a city bus driver before he was a cop -- so even under Lynn's bill he would have been able to vote.
In an email message, Fenumiai said she didn't have an opinion on the necessity of a picture ID law. She said she hasn't asked for such a bill and hasn't had "any problems implementing the existing statute."
Current law allows voters to identify themselves with a driver license -- either with a picture or the special rural license that has no picture -- or numerous documents that don't have photographs but can tie a voter by name to an address: a birth certificate, hunting or fishing license, bank statement, utility bill, paycheck, government check "or other government document."
Rural Alaska residents have no easy access to the equipment that produces picture IDs, such as in large regional centers like Bethel and Nome and in all the larger cities. While the TSA requires a picture ID for travel from Bethel to Anchorage, that's not the case on small planes from the villages to Bethel, said Naneng, the rural official.
Tiffiny Thomas, driver license manager for the Division of Motor Vehicles, said the state has a special "valid without photo license" for rural residents who don't have easy access to an official DMV office. There's also a special off-highway license that allows rural residents to get a license without a road test. Those documents are valid in 294 villages, towns and settlements off the highway grid.
Putting photo ID machines into villages across Alaska "would be cost-prohibitive," Thomas said. The state once considered equipping a mobile DMV office, but that never went beyond the discussion stage.
The American Civil Liberties Union says efforts around the country to create laws requiring photo identification to vote have been attempts to suppress voting by certain segments of the population.
"Over 30 states considered laws that would require voters to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote," the ACLU says on its website. "Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely."
At the same time, "proponents of such voter suppression legislation have failed to show that voter fraud is a problem anywhere in the country."
Naneng said he thought Lynn's bill would reduce the statewide Democratic vote if passed. "Why are they trying to find ways to restrict people from exercising their right to vote," he asked.
Lynn disagreed. "We need to have more people vote, not less," he said. His bill was not an effort to suppress the vote but to "make sure the person who walks up, that he is who he says he is."
Redistricting had at least an effect in helping Republicans make big gains in the Senate -- four incumbent Democratic senators were knocked out when they had to run in redrawn districts. But redistricting has no effect on statewide races -- races in which all voters across the state vote on a single office. While Democrats usually don't do well statewide, when they have, their races have generally been close.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich beat Republican Sen. Ted Stevens by less than 4,000 votes in 2008. In 1994, Democrat Tony Knowles became governor by 583 votes. In 2014, Begich will be up for reelection, and there will be a governor's race as well.
Kay Brown, executive director of the state Democratic party, said it is likely the party would oppose a picture ID law.
"There's been a big effort by national Democrats to fight these voter ID laws," she said. "They do appear to be aimed a suppressing racial minorities and other minorities."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.