COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Ohio's primary approaches, a strict new photo ID requirement is stirring concerns for military veterans and out-of-state college students, in Amish communities and among older voters.
Other Republican-led states are moving in the same direction as they respond to conservative voters unsettled by unfounded claims of widespread fraud and persistent conspiracy theories over the accuracy of U.S. elections. Critics characterize such requirements as an overreaction that could end up disenfranchising eligible voters.
Ruth Kohake is among those caught up in the confusion over Ohio's law, which is going into effect this year. The retired nurse from Cincinnati gave up her driver's license and her car in 2019. Now 82, she thought she might never have to step foot in another state license agency.
But Ohio now requires an unexpired photo ID in order for someone to vote, and she'll have to get that at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The law adds passports as valid ID, but eliminates nonphoto documentation such as a bank statement, government check or utility bill for registration and in-person voting. Military IDs also are no longer acceptable when registering to vote.
"I'm very, very, very concerned that people are not going to know. They're going to come to vote and they're not going to be able to, or they're going to have to vote provisional," she said. "It's just a very upsetting time. Us old people, we have other things to worry about."
Of 35 states that request or require a photo ID to vote, Ohio is now the ninth Republican-controlled state to move to a strict law allowing few to no alternatives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fifteen states allow other ways voters can verify their identify, such as an electric bill, bank statement or signature match.
The number of states where voters face strict photo ID requirements is poised to rise in the coming months.
Nebraska lawmakers are in the process of establishing a new photo ID program after voters approved a requirement in November. In North Carolina, a photo ID requirement declared unconstitutional just three months ago could be revived by the state Supreme Court that has a new Republican majority. Meanwhile, a new Idaho law, which prohibits students from using college IDs at the polls, drew a recent legal challenge.
Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the new Ohio law undercuts the Republican narrative about the state having a record of clean and well-run elections.
"Ohio election officials have long been adamant that this wasn't needed, that Ohio had a good system for vetting and rooting out any fraud and the proof was in the pudding," she said.
Republican state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, a supporter of the law, said the change will make it harder to cheat.
It already has led to frustration and confusion, in part because of the fast-approaching state primary on May 2.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose ordered counties to begin implementing the fast-tracked law so it would be in effect for the primary, though its start date falls within the early voting period. Waiting until fall, LaRose said, "would result in a clear violation of Ohio law."
That decision is not without complications. The free state photo IDs the law provides won't be available until April 7, the law's effective date, despite military and overseas voting already having begun and early, in-person voting set to start April 4.
At the same time, a legal challenge to the law by a Democratic law firm remains unresolved. The lawsuit alleges the law creates "needless discriminatory burdens," including by requiring photo IDs, making it harder to correct minor mistakes on ballots and restricting mail balloting.
Veterans' organizations and county recorders, particularly in the populous, Democratic-leaning counties that include Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, have been vocal about the law excluding county-issued veteran photo IDs, though it does allow military IDs, to vote. They cost less and are valid longer -- 10 years -- than a driver's license.
"People find reasons to fix something that doesn't need to be fixed," said Larry Anderson, 85, a veteran from Columbus who has found the veteran ID card a convenience. "Veterans could come back from the wars and not have a driver's license and not drive a car, and it just creates more problems for them."
AMVETS Executive Director Don McCauley said the issue has been brought to lawmakers' attention and he hopes to see it resolved before the next election.
Access issues also have arisen among the roughly 37,000 Amish in Ohio's Holmes County, where the largely conservative voters reject being photographed and often lack other forms of government ID.
Lawmakers allowed for religious exceptions through an affidavit that the law's supporters say will be easy to use, but Holmes County Elections Director Lisa Welch is worried that confusion and extra paperwork could add to the workloads of already stressed boards of elections.
"My biggest concern is the first time through, we get a whole bunch of provisionals (that must be processed separately later)," she said. "I'm the only full-time person in the office right now, and we can't do everything."
Holmes County Commissioner Joe Miller fears the new process could deter some voters.
"I want honest voting, I understand that, but a lot of the Amish don't have the photo ID and won't do a photo ID," he said. "So what the Amish do usually -- they're pacifists, they don't fight anybody -- they just walk away."
Ohio State University has advised its roughly 16,000 out-of-state students against voting in person on Election Day -- for fear that obtaining the necessary state ID card could invalidate their driver's license in their home state and disrupt their financial aid and residency status. The schools suggests such students casting Ohio ballots do so by mail.
Backers of the photo ID requirements have widely moved away from the argument that such laws prevent voter fraud, which happens only rarely. The conservative Heritage Foundation's database lists only 26 convictions for voter impersonation fraud -- the type deterred by photo ID requirements -- anywhere in the U.S. between 2004 and 2022. In presidential elections alone, Americans cast more than 645 million votes during that period.
Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative group Honest Elections Project Action, told reporters in a recent policy briefing that robust voter turnout and Democrats' unexpectedly strong performance in the 2022 midterm elections disprove the idea that election security enhancements suppress voters.
"I would submit that, actually when you look at the sort of election integrity laws that are advancing through state legislatures and actually getting passed, what is happening in conservative states is far more mainstream than what we're seeing happen in liberal states," Snead said.
Liz Avore, senior adviser to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting legislation in the states, said voters have made the opposite choice when they've had a say on excessively strict photo ID laws. Arizona voters rejected an effort to enact a stricter photo ID law last fall, for instance, and Michigan voters protected the vote there from photo ID restrictions.
So far this year, photo ID proposals also have failed in Virginia and Wyoming.
"A really critical distinction to draw is, yes, it's true that the majority of Americans are in favor of voter ID laws, and it's also true that the majority of voter ID laws are set up to allow people who don't have an ID available to still cast a ballot," she said.