Technically speaking, the right to vote is not a civil right. The U.S. Constitution does not specifically give citizens the right to go to the polls and elect their leaders. The U.S. Constitution mentions voting to the extent that it prohibits the denial of voting rights to certain classes, such as women and African American men. As a result, individual state legislatures govern voting laws - which vary a great deal.
Most Voting Laws Are Governed By States
Laws regarding proof of identity for voters change frequently and by jurisdiction, especially leading up to major national elections. Some states add ID requirements, others drop them, and still others are in limbo as changes to the law are appealed. Many states feel that requiring voters to produce ID is unconstitutional, because it may discourage some classes from voting.
Some States Require Photo ID
As of early 2012, only four states had firm laws requiring voters to produce visual proof of their identities before they can cast ballots. These states turn voters away from the polls if they can't show photo IDs. However, turned-away voters get another chance. They're given provisional ballots, which they can complete and take to election officials within a few days. However, at that time, they must produce a photo ID for the election official. If they can't get one quickly, their votes don't count.
Some States Offer Other Options
Other states are more lenient and accept alternate forms of proof of identity when voters don't have photo IDs. For example, some states will accept utility bills as proof of residence, sworn affidavits that voters are who they say they are, or confirmation of some personal information, such as a date of birth.
Some States Require No ID
Approximately half of all states require some proof of identity at the polls, but the other half, including New Jersey and California, do not. In Oregon, citizens vote by mail. There's no system in place to check ID. Seventeen other states also decline to check ID before allowing people to vote. In March 2012, Wisconsin attempted to require photo ID with no other options, but a state court overturned the legislative decision. Unless that's reversed, the state has no ID requirement.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding voting rights and proof of identity at the polls is complicated, especially as elections near. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.