Voter-Identification Law Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court
By Greg Stohr
The U.S. Supreme Court gave Republicans an election-year victory, ruling in an Indiana case that states can require photo identification from voters to combat fraud.
The court, voting 6-3, rejected Democratic contentions that the Indiana law will impose an unconstitutional burden on voters, particularly the elderly and poor. The Indiana measure, which will be in effect for the state's presidential primary on May 6, is by some accounts the nation's strictest voter-ID law.
Writing the court's lead opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said the risk of voter fraud is ``real'' and that fraud ``could affect the outcome of a close election.'' States, he said, have a ``valid interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.''
The ruling bolsters laws in dozens of states and may make it harder for some voters to cast ballots in the November elections. The decision doesn't preclude the possibility that voters could launch narrower challenges to particular applications of the Indiana law or other statutes around the country.
The case raised echoes of the 2000 Bush v. Gore case, pitting Republicans against Democrats in a fight over the rules of the polling place. That case, which resolved the presidential election dispute, split the court along ideological lines, 5-4.
Stevens let the court avert a similar split in the voter-ID case by voting with the conservative wing. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy joined Stevens's opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed with the result, while saying they would have given states even more leeway to enact voter-ID laws.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Stephen Breyer dissented. Writing for himself and Ginsburg, Souter said the law ``imposes an unreasonable and irrelevant burden on voters who are poor and old.''
Breyer said the Indiana law imposed a ``significantly harsher'' burden on voters than photo-ID requirements in other states, including Florida and Georgia.
``The good news is that the justices are searching for ways to depoliticize election law cases,'' said Edward Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law in Columbus. ``The less-encouraging sign, as evidenced by the 3-3-2-1 split, is that they aren't quite there yet.''
The Indiana law was enacted along party lines and signed by a Republican governor. Under the measure, voters who don't have a photo ID may cast a provisional ballot. To have their votes counted, they must visit a designated government office within 10 days and either bring a photo ID or sign a statement saying they can't afford one.
To obtain a photo ID, Indiana residents must present at least one ``primary'' document, such as a birth certificate, passport, certificate of naturalization or military ID.
Democrats contended that the new Indiana law will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, including a disproportionate number of minority, elderly and poor people.
Stevens said the evidence didn't back up those assertions. He said the record in the case ``does not provide any concrete evidence of the burden imposed on voters who currently lack photo identification.''
Stevens acknowledged that supporters of the law hadn't proven any instance of voter impersonation at the polls in Indiana. He said, however, that ``flagrant examples of such fraud have been documented throughout this nation's history,'' including William ``Boss'' Tweed's manipulation of the 1868 New York City elections.
2003 Mayoral Race
Stevens also pointed to absentee-ballot fraud in the 2003 Democratic primary in the mayoral race in East Chicago, Indiana.
In dissent, Souter questioned whether voter impersonation was a real problem in light of the possibility of criminal prosecution and the limited impact that a single fraudulent vote would have.
``It simply is not worth it for individuals acting alone to commit in-person voter impersonation, which is relatively ineffectual for the foolish few who may commit it,'' Souter wrote.
In his concurring opinion, Scalia faulted Stevens for evaluating whether the law imposed a special burden on particular voters and leaving the door open for future lawsuits.
``A case-by-case approach naturally encourages constant litigation,'' Scalia said. ``Very few new election regulations improve everyone's lot, so the potential allegations of severe burden are endless.''
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York called the ruling ``a body blow to what America stands for -- equal access to the polls.''
The Bush administration backed the Indiana Republicans in the case.
The cases are Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 07- 21, and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, 07-25.