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47 states enact new laws on voting; Some pass, change picture ID rules

With Republicans taking control of most state capitols this year and a presidential race looming, states have passed the most election-related laws since 2003 in a push to tighten voting rules.

Forty-seven states have enacted 285 election-related laws this year, and 60 percent were in states with Republican governors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats are pushing back by vetoing photo-identification laws in five states and trying to repeal other voting laws in Maine and Ohio.

It's the "battle before the battle" as both parties fight for what they think are the most advantageous and fairest rules, said Doug Chapin, director of an elections-administration program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

"We're at a level of activity that I don't think I've ever seen," Chapin said in a telephone interview. "You've got the combination of a fiercely divided nation, uncertainty about what the rules are and a belief that every single vote counts."

The hottest legislation has been voter identification, according to the NCSL. At the year's start, only Georgia and Indiana required a photo ID and offered no alternative way to have votes counted in its absence.

Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas enacted or amended laws requiring photo ID this year, and 34 states in all considered such bills, the Denver-based organization said.

Opponents say such laws discourage voting by the poor and black people, who traditionally back Democrats.

A 2006 Brennan Center study found that 11 percent of U.S. citizens didn't have a government-issued photo ID, and neither did 18 percent of citizens age 65 and older and 25 percent of black voters.

Republicans who after the 2010 elections took over legislatures and governor's offices have had more opportunity to act on election issues, Sean Greene, research manager with the Pew Center on the States' election initiatives, said in a telephone interview. The issue divides Republicans concerned about fraud and Democrats interested in access, he said.

In Ohio, State Rep. Lou Blessing, R-Cincinnati, is co-sponsor of a pending bill that would require photo ID.

The Republican-controlled Legislature also passed a separate law that Republican Gov. John Kasich signed July 1. It makes changes to election rules, including shortening the absentee early-voting period to 21 days from 35 and restricting hours for in-person early voting.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, is helping lead the coalition Fair Elections Ohio that she said will collect the 231,147 signatures needed by Sept. 29 to halt implementation of the election law until a November 2012 referendum.

Expanded early voting is perceived to have helped Democrats, especially Obama in 2008, more than Republicans, said Daniel P. Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and associate director of the university's Election Law at Moritz center.

States including Florida, Georgia and Tennessee also limited early voting, while Maine, Florida and Texas changed restricted third-party registration efforts or eliminated Election-Day registration, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.