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Voter ID law approved by Justice Dept.

This November, when you go pick a president, don't forget your ID.

The U.S. Department of Justice has approved a state law enacted in June that requires New Hampshire voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

For more than 40 years, New Hampshire has been in a class of states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama, that must submit some or all their election laws to the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department for review before any changes can take effect.

In July, the state requested approval for the new laws and T. Christian Herren Jr., chief of the Justice Department's voting section, wrote in a letter released yesterday that it complies with Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which enforces the 15th Amendment's guarantee of the right to vote regardless of race, color or 'previous condition of servitude.'

'The Attorney General does not interpose any objection,' Herren wrote.

Before September 2013, acceptable IDs will include: Driver's licenses issued by any state; a military ID; a valid photo ID card issued by the federal, state, county or local government; and valid student IDs. Some of those identifications are acceptable regardless of their expiration dates.

After September 2013, election officials will no longer accept student IDs or driver's licenses or passports that have been expired for more than five years.

The goal of the law is to confirm that the person voting is who he or she claims to be, not necessarily to verify that the person is qualified to vote in New Hampshire, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said next week's primary elections will be a 'practice run' for the new law and that the new rules will be in effect by the Nov. 6 general elections.

So on Sept. 11, he said, voters will be asked to present a photo ID. If they don't, they'll receive an education packet, he said. The office has been working for weeks to prepare officials and activists for the changes, he said.

'The law gets phased in over time, and so we have been focusing on just what happens in 2012 because we don't want to confuse people any more than is necessary,' Scanlan said.

State Republicans praised the Justice Department's approval.

'This is the result of working with all the parties concerned,' said Sen. Russell Prescott of Kingston, who pushed hard for a voter ID law but helped block a measure that passed the Legislature last year that would have required voters to cast provisional ballots. Under those circumstances, Prescott said, voters would have needed to return to officials and prove they were indeed qualified to vote. If they didn't, then the ballots wouldn't count.

'I felt as though that would not meet the challenges of the Department of Justice,' Prescott said.

'Even going into the Democratic National Convention requires identification,' House Speaker Bill O'Brien of Mont Vernon said in a prepared statement. 'I am pleased we have been able to take this step toward supporting electoral integrity this term.'

In his letter, Herren left open the door for more opposition, just not from his office.

'The failure of the Attorney General to object does not bar subsequent litigation,' he wrote.

State Democrats expressed their disappointment in the development.

'We will continue to be vigilant as this moves forward to protect the rights of voters,' Collin Gately, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said in an email.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jackie Cilley and Maggie Hassan oppose the new ID requirements. Both Republican gubernatorial candidates, Kevin Smith and Ovide Lamontagne, support voter ID requirements and praised yesterday's developments.

Under the new law, voters who cannot present a photo ID will sign a 'challenged voter affidavit,' in which they swear under oath that they are who they say they are. Those voters' names will then be entered into a statewide database maintained by the secretary of state's office, which in turn sends a verification letter to the ID-less voter.

If the voter does not confirm with the secretary of state's office, or if the office gets the confirmation letter back as undeliverable, or if the voter calls to dispute that he or she signed the affidavit, then the case is referred to the attorney general's office, Scanlan said.

After Sept. 1, 2013, those who sign challenged voter affidavits will have their picture taken at the polling place by an election official.

Those who do not have an ID will be given a voucher to get one at the local Division of Motor Vehicles, Scanlan said.

Absentee voting and same-day voter registration will be unaffected by the new laws, he said.

New Hampshire fell under the purview of the Voting Rights Act after the 1968 elections. Federal law said that if a state had a 'test or device' that restricted voting and if less than 50 percent of people of voting age had registered to vote or voted in a particular election, then the federal government had the final say over any changes to that state's elections laws.

In New Hampshire in 1968, there was poor voter turnout in 10 towns and a literacy test was still on the books. The towns were Antrim, Benton, Boscawen, Millsfield, Newington, Pinkhams Grant, Rindge, Stewartstown, Stratford and Unity.

If the state had only had a literacy test, or if there had only been poor turnout in some communities, then New Hampshire would have not been required to submit all its laws that affect voting for 'preclearance.'

Until 2004, the state hadn't taken any statements toward complying with the Voting Rights Act, and the state attorney general's office said it has no record that the federal government has ever taken any actions against New Hampshire.

But in 2004, New Hampshire officials started the 'bail-out' process to become eligible for $17 million in federal grants to pay for training and equipment for election officials.

To 'bail out,' the state will also need to prove that no 'test or device' to bar voting has been used in the past 10 years and that no lawsuits alleging voter discrimination are pending.

Although the federal government has recently moved against laws requiring voters to present photo IDs in Texas and South Carolina, officials yesterday said they weren't too worried that New Hampshire's laws would meet similar resistance because it allowed for a greater variety of identifications and didn't put as onerous burdens on those without IDs.

The bail-out process has, so far, taken eight years, with more than 250 filings and 400 changes in statutes. The state has also been required to submit all of its redistricting requirements to the Justice Department. None of the requests have been denied, the New Hampshire attorney general's office said.

Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said state officials have filed the last of its voting laws to federal officials, most of them dealing with issues in the 10 qualifying towns such as changing polling locations and times. Officials hope that the last of the laws will be cleared by mid-October.

'It's near the very end,' Edwards said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors.)

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