With Justices’ OK, Voter ID Moves Ahead

By: - April 29, 2008 12:00 am

  Voter ID Requirements
Source: electionline.org (opens PDF)
A decision Monday (April 28) by the U.S. Supreme Court to let Indiana demand photo identification from voters paves the way for other states to do the same during November’s presidential election, experts say.


The court’s 6-3 decision leaves the door open for future legal challenges, if proof is presented that voters couldn’t cast their ballots because of the new rules- evidence that the court said was missing from the Indiana case. But the court didn’t specify how many people must be affected for it to consider striking down the law.


“It’s going to be an uphill battle for anybody who would want to (challenge the Indiana law) just because the state interests are so strong” in holding fraud-free elections, said Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher. Fisher defended the law at oral arguments before the high court.


Vermont Secretary of State Deborah L. Markowitz, a Democrat who weighed in against the restrictions, said lawmakers in other states might press ahead with pursuing similar measures after getting the all-clear from the high court.


Currently, only Indiana, Georgia and Florida require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Missouri passed a similar law, but it was struck down by the state supreme court.


“There are already bills pending in legislatures across the country. The fear is that this will breathe new life into some of those efforts,” Markowitz said.


The court, in a controlling opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, said Indiana had several legitimate reasons for making it more difficult to vote. The law can be used to find or stop voter fraud, modernize Indiana’s election law and ensure that Indiana voters are confident in the results of their elections, he said.


“While the most effective method of preventing election fraud may well be debatable, the propriety of doing so is perfectly clear,” Stevens wrote in an opinion joined by two other justices.


Stevens said the court had little evidence to overturn the Indiana law.


Another three-justice block agreed that the law should be upheld, but it went further in calling for judges to keep their hands off of state election laws.


“It is for state legislatures to weigh the costs and benefits of possible changes to their election codes, and their judgment must prevail unless it imposes a severe and unjustified overall burden upon the right to vote, or is intended to disadvantage a particular class,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.


Overall, Monday’s decision means the Hoosier State will continue to use its controversial 2005 law, which took effect in time for the 2006 general election and the 2007 municipal elections. The identification checks will be used again in the May 6 primary election. There are several heated contests for Democrats on that day, including those for an Indianapolis congressional seat, governor and president.


Under the Indiana law, registered voters must present a government-issued photo ID – such as a driver’s license – to take part in the elections. Voters without proper identification can cast provisional ballots, but those count only if those voters show a photo ID at a county election office within 10 days.


Republicans muscled the law through the Indiana General Assembly without a single Democratic vote when the GOP still controlled both chambers.


Democrats are unlikely to use the identification rules to try to block other Democrats from voting, said Karen Celestino-Horseman, an Indianapolis lawyer who headed the League of Women Voters’ efforts in the case. The League was one of more than two dozen groups and individuals who filed briefs opposing the law before the high court, out of 39 groups that weighed in on the case.


Further court challenges to the law could come after the general election, if people are turned away because of the rules, she said. Indiana is expected to have a tight race for governor in the fall, although the state has been reliably Republican in presidential contests.


The increased interest in the upcoming Democratic primary prompted 60,000 people in the Indianapolis area to register for the first time, update their information or change parties, increasing the chance that they’ll have difficulty at the polls, Celestino-Horseman said.


But Fisher, the state solicitor general, said the law included accommodations for people who might encounter problems. For example, poor people can get identification from the state for free.


Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) said her state’s voter-identification law caused no problems there, even when 2 million voters turned out at the polls for the February presidential primary.


“There has not been one single demonstrated deprivation of any right to vote or any other violation of a constitutional or statutory right resulting from the photo ID requirement,” she said.


Missouri’s invalidated voter-identification law still doesn’t pass legal muster under Monday’s decision, said Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D).


In striking down a voter-identification law there in 2006, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution contained more protections for voters than its federal counterpart, making it harder for the local law to pass muster.


Plus, Carnahan said in a statement, more evidence about the fallout of the Missouri law was presented than in the Indiana case.


“Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the Missouri Court found that as many as 240,000 Missouri registered voters – mostly elderly, disabled, poor, and minority voters – risked being disenfranchised because they lacked the government-issued photo ID required,” she said.


Monday’s decision marks the second time in little more than a month that the Supreme Court decided to let a state go ahead with a controversial election law. On March 18, the court approved Washington state’s use of a “top-two” primary over the objection of the state’s political parties. Under this system, the top two vote-getters in state primaries advance to the general election, regardless of their political affiliations.


Taken together, the two decisions focus “everybody back on the need to bring into federal court somebody who’s actually been injured, instead of a collection of interest groups who claim to represent the aggrieved,” said Fisher, the Indiana solicitor general.

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