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Why aren't voting laws consistent across states? #askmpr

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Lunchtime voting was brisk in Ward Five.
File photo of the busy polling place at the Front Ave High Rise in St. Paul's Fifth Ward on Nov. 3, 2015.
Regina McCombs | MPR News File

During the run-up to Election Day in November MPR News is finding the answers to your election questions. Pose yours here. 

Our first question comes from Holly of Columbus, Minn. who wants to know why voter laws vary from state to state. We turned to Barbara Headrick, a Professor of Political Science at Minnesota State University Moorhead for the answers.

Dr. Barbara Headrick
Dr. Barbara Headrick, Professor of Political Science at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Photo submitted by Barbara Headrick

This Election Day several states will have new voting restrictions — the right to set these restrictions was given to them with the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution also clearly spells out ballot access for women, African American males and establishes the official voting age as 18.

However, "there isn't a specific part of the constitution that says every citizen 18 or older has the right to vote, and that's why you get arguments about what kind of laws are allowed," Headrick said.

Most recently the question among states has been: What should be required to prove your identity at a polling place?

"During the 1990s we were worried about lack of (voter) turnout so there was an effort to try and increase turnout," Headrick said. "And some states, however, in the early 2000s said 'Now, we don't know who's voting.' And so they wanted to put in laws that required you to have certain forms of ID in order to vote."

Headrick says those in favor of these laws often site what is called "in person impersonation." Which is the act of someone showing up in another's place and voting using their identity.

Headrick says this type of voter fraud is rare. Earlier this year when states like Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina attempted to change their voting laws judges repeatedly highlighted voter fraud in general as not a large problem.

"More of them (new voting regulations) have been successfully challenged because it's been shown that certain groups have been disadvantaged by them," Headrick said.

Headrick says minorities, lower income families and the elderly are disproportionately affected by voter ID laws because while in some cases receiving an ID is free, the paperwork to get it is not.

In addition — getting an ID is not a regular part of some people's lives. Millions of Americans operate without a driver's license or checking account and, for some elderly citizens in rural areas, some people may not have received a certificate at birth says Headrick.

One other piece of legislation regulating voting is the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. This landmark body of laws was written to secure voting rights for racial minorities and prevent regulations targeted at barring African Americans from voting.

Making voting laws remained up to each state, however under the Act states with a history of voter discrimination were required to gain approval from the Supreme Court before revising voter laws.

Until 2013, when the Supreme Court rendered the provision unconstitutional, ending the requirement of advanced approval.

Though courts still have the power to step in when laws are in violation of other portions of the Voting Rights Act, it was that 2013 decision that paved the way for states to make much stricter voting laws, and it could have effect on the upcoming election, said Headrick.

"People are a little bit confused in terms of some of the injunctions that have been put in place in some places and not in others, about what the rules are," she said. "The more steps you put in front of voters the more you can drive down turnout."

For the full conversation watch the video below:

Test your knowledge of Minnesota's voting laws in this quiz: