WASHINGTON - In elections that begin next week, voters in 10 states will be required to present photo identification before casting ballots - the first major test of voter ID laws after years of legal challenges arguing that the measures are designed to suppress voting.
The first election is March 4 in Texas, followed by nine other primaries running through early September that will set the ballot for the midterm elections in November, when voters decide competitive races for governor and control of Congress.
The primaries will be closely watched by both sides of the voter ID debate, which intensified in 2011, the year after Republicans swept to power in dozens of statehouses.
For months, election workers have been preparing new voting procedures, while party activists and political groups seek ID cards for voters who do not have them.
The debut of the new laws in a few smaller-scale elections over the last year has already exposed some problems, such as mismatched names, confusion over absentee voting provisions and rules that require voters to travel great distances to obtain proper documentation. In one case, voters had no recourse if their credentials were challenged.
"Unless people are paying attention, and a lot of them aren't, they don't even know this law exists," said Brian Schoenman, secretary of the elections board in Fairfax County, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb.
Supporters of the measures, mostly Republican conservatives, contend the ID checks protect against fraudulent voting and thus help build trust in government. Critics see them as a way of discouraging the kind of voters who lack picture IDs and might be more likely to support Democrats.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that states can require voters to produce photo ID at the polls without violating their constitutional rights. And last year, the high court threw out a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act, a decision that allowed voter ID laws to take effect in states where voting procedures had been under strict federal oversight for nearly 50 years.