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Is proliferation of new voting laws a Republican ruse?

A few weeks back, Dorothy Cooper took her birth certificate, her rental apartment lease and her old voter registration card to a state office in Chattanooga to get the newly-mandated photo ID that Tennessee voters must now have.

But the 96-year-old retired domestic worker left empty-handed - because she hadn't brought her marriage certificate, too.

Ms Cooper's rejection made national headlines and red-faced local officials scurried to coax her back to the ID-issuing site to make things right.

Ms Cooper, who's missed voting in only one election in 70 years, declined. Instead, she'll vote by absentee ballot - a process that, ironically, requires no photo ID.

Opponents of Tennessee's new law claim that the case of Ms Cooper (who hadn't another photo ID because she doesn't drive and has no driver's licence) is the tip of an iceberg of politically-motivated new laws passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures in order to disenfranchise many Democratic-leaning voters.

Proponents say the laws are only designed to stamp out rampant voter fraud. During a speech in 2006, Republican electoral guru Karl Rove told a lawyers' convention that voter fraud was "enormous and growing".

Evidence suggests otherwise. For example, after an extensive justice department probe from 2002 to 2007 - a period when 300 million votes were cast - only 86 people were convicted of voter fraud. Most convictions involved the transgressions of ineligible felons and illegal immigrants and not calculated vote-stealing.

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Voting restrictions have been as American as apple pie ever since the founding fathers granted only white male property-owners (many of whom were also slave-owners) the right to vote.

The 19th century saw more males gain the vote. Women didn't get the franchise until 1920. Finally, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act swept away the last vestiges of the 'Jim Crow' laws that had barred blacks from voting in the south.

But restricted franchise advocates have never gone away. For example, in 1980, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the influential conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, bluntly told an evangelical gathering: "I don't want everybody to vote."

Since 2010's sweeping Republican victories, 38 state legislatures have introduced tougher voter registration bills. Twelve states have already passed a variety of these measures - from shortened early voting periods, to barring ex-felons from voting, to more stringent identification requirements.

In Kansas, Wisconsin, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee, voters will have to show a government-issued ID in order to vote. One recent study showed that more than one in 10 Americans are without such ID.

Advocates of the laws claim that mandated IDs aren't a hardship because they're free. Opponents say such claims are misleading because, while the ID itself may be free, the required supporting documentation (such as a US passport) can be quite costly.

In addition, applicants often have to travel significant distances to apply in person - something that can dissuade poorer and rural people from even pursuing IDs.

Proving malicious intent on the part of Republicans may be impossible between now and November 2012. But some facts are telling: in 29 states that keep records of voters' party affiliation, in 2008 and 2009, two out of three new voters registered as Democrats. In 2008, Barack Obama took 70% of these votes.

And rendering thousands of potential voters ineligible could make all the difference in key swing states like Florida and Ohio next year.

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