2012 Voter ID Laws - What To Know

In Alabama, South Carolina and Texas, less-strict voter ID laws that pre-date the strict new laws passed in 2011 remain in effect for now. Alabama's new voter ID law has a 2014 effective date, and requires Section 5 pre-clearance. Texas and South Carolina were denied pre-clearance for their new voter ID laws by the U.S. Department of Justice; as in Alabama, older, non-photo ID laws remain in effect while both states seek a reconsideration of pre-clearance from a federal court.

The 33 voter ID laws that have been enacted vary in their details. Two key distinctions are whether a law is strict or not, and whether or not the ID must include a photo.

  • Strict vs. Non-Strict: In the "strict" states, a voter cannot cast a valid ballot without first presenting ID. Voters who are unable to show ID at the polls are given a provisional ballot. Those provisional ballots are kept separate from the regular ballots. If the voter returns to election officials within a short period of time after the election (generally a few days) and presents acceptable ID, the provisional ballot is counted. If the voter does not come back to show ID, that provisional ballot is never counted.
  • Photo vs. Non-Photo: Seventeen states require that the ID presented at the polls must show a photo of the voter. Some of these are "strict" voter ID laws, in that voters who fail to show photo ID are given a provisional ballot and must eventually show photo ID in order to get that provisional ballot counted. Others are "non-strict," and voters without ID have other options for casting a regular ballot. They may be permitted to sign an affidavit of identity, or poll workers may be able to vouch for them if they know them personally. In these "non-strict" states, voters who fail to bring ID on Election Day aren't required to return to election officials and show ID in order to have their ballot counted. In the other 16 voter ID states, there is a wide array of IDs that are acceptable for voting purposes, some of which do not include a photo of the voter. Again, some of these states are "strict" in the sense that a voter who fails to bring ID on Election Day will be required to vote a provisional ballot, and that provisional ballot will be counted only if the voter returns to election officials within a few days to show acceptable ID.

States that Have Enacted Voter ID Laws

Not all of the laws listed below have taken effect. Please see the footnotes for detailed information.

Table 1. State Requirements for Voter Identification
States that Request or Require Photo ID States that Require ID (Photo Not Required)
Strict Photo ID Photo ID Strict Non-Photo ID Non-Strict Non-Photo ID
*Mississippi (6)
**South Carolina (1)
**Texas (1)
*Wisconsin (2)
**Alabama (1), (5)
New Hampshire
South Dakota
North Dakota
Oklahoma (3)
Rhode Island (4)

* New voter ID law has not yet been implemented; state presently has no voter ID law in effect.

** New voter ID law has not yet been implemented; an older voter ID law remains in effect.

(1) In Alabama, South Carolina and Texas, current non-photo voter ID laws stay in effect for the time being. The new photo voter ID requirements will take effect after receiving preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. South Carolina and Texas were denied pre-clearance in December 2011 and March 2012, respectively. Alabama's new photo ID law has a 2014 effective date, and the state has not yet applied for pre-clearance.

(2) Wisconsin's voter ID law was declared unconstitutional on March 12, 2012. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess issued a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the law, which the state has said it will appeal.

(3) There are some who prefer to call Oklahoma a photo voter ID state, because most voters will show a photo ID before voting. However, Oklahoma law also permits a voter registration card issued by the appropriate county elections board to serve as proof of identity in lieu of photo ID.

(4) Rhode Island's voter ID law takes effect in two stages. The first stage, requiring a non-photo ID, took effect on January 1, 2012. On January 1, 2014, a photo ID requirement will replace the non-photo ID law.

(5) Alabama's new photo ID requirement takes effect with the 2014 statewide primary election. The new law also requires preclearance. The delayed implementation date was intended to ensure that the timing of preclearance did not occur between the primary and general elections of 2012, thus creating voter confusion.

(6) Mississippi's new voter ID law was passed via the citizen initiative process. It takes effect 30 days after the certification of results, a date that will likely fall in late December 2011 or early January 2012. However, the language in constitutional amendment passed by MS voters on Nov. 8 is very general, and implementing legislation will be required before the amendment can take effect. The MS provision will also require pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act before it can take effect.

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