JUNEAU -- A controversial bill that critics say will make it harder for Alaskans to vote by imposing new identification requirements cleared its first committee Thursday despite objections from the AARP, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Alaska Association of Municipal Clerks and the American Civil Liberties Union.
One of the sponsors, Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn, said House Bill 3 won't stop a single person from voting and that some of the critics have misconstrued what he aims to do.
"I want to emphasize that the only purpose of HB 3 is simply to help ensure that the person who shows up at the polling place is actually the person who they say they are. And I think that's basically a pretty good idea," said Lynn, who chairs the State Affairs Committee that passed the bill out with lukewarm support.
The measure requires voters at the polls to show photo identification or, if they don't have a picture ID, two other forms of identification such as a birth certificate, adoption record, government license, or tribal ID card. If two election officials know the voter, they can waive those identification requirements. And any voter can cast a questioned ballot that would be assessed for validity after Election Day.
Voter photo ID laws are hugely controversial across the U.S. because poor and elderly people and minorities are less likely than other voters to have required identification like a driver's license, and they are more likely to be Democrats. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, criticized Lynn's bill this month in his annual address to the Legislature and said it might prevent many rural residents from voting. Lynn said Thursday Begich must not have read the bill.
Supporter Juliet Hildreth of Anchorage, whose family is from rural Alaska, told the committee that just about everyone has a picture ID or other valid identification and that it's insulting to Alaska Natives to imply they might struggle to vote under the proposed requirements.
But Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said rural residents wouldn't have the same opportunity to vote a regular ballot that other Alaskans do because they are less likely to have a photo-bearing license. Such licenses aren't necessary to drive in 294 Alaska villages, towns and communities off the highway system.
Obtaining a copy of other official ID, such as a birth certificate, costs money, and any fee associated with voting "is absolutely forbidden under the U.S. Constitution," Mittman told the committee. "This is called a poll tax."
Without evidence of voter fraud in Alaska, the bill isn't addressing a demonstrated need, he said. It would be struck down if challenged in court, he predicted.
Elections officials say that most questioned ballots ultimately are counted, but voting that way can be discouraging, critics said.
Lynn and the other prime sponsor, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla and the other committee vice chairman, said they are trying to ensure elections are fair.
Only Keller and Lynn gave the measure full support at Thursday's hearing. Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, who described himself as "lukewarm," and Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, want to see changes. Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, opposes it. Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, didn't give a recommendation.
Currently, voters at the polls can present a single piece of documentation, including a utility bill or a bank statement, or have their identity verified by a single election worker.
The bill now goes to the Judiciary Committee, which Keller chairs and Lynn vice-chairs. Keller said issues will be worked out there.
Reach reporter Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 952-3965.
By LISA DEMER