There’s a war on across the country over who will be allowed to vote in 2008. One of the key battles in the election was fought on January 9 before the Supreme Court.
The case is called Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. It tests an Indiana statute, passed in 2005, requiring voters to present a government-issued ID before they can cast a ballot. The law is aimed at alleged fraudulent voting by unregistered or noncitizen voters. Republicans insist that these voters pose a major problem, despite the fact that every systematic study of the question has concluded that this kind of fraud–called “voter impersonation”–is all but unknown in the United States right now. In fact, authorities in Indiana could not point to a single case of voter impersonation in the state’s history.
Voter ID laws span a wide spectrum. The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, provides that all states must require ID from first-time voters who register by mail. But twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have gone beyond this. Eighteen require all voters to produce some form of ID, which may be a bank statement or utility bill sent to their address. Two require a photo ID, which may include employee or other unofficial IDs. Arizona requires all voters to produce either one government-issued ID or two other identifications. Indiana stands alone in requiring that the ID have a photo and be issued by the government–the most difficult forms of identification to obtain. Voters who don’t have such IDs are supposed to cast “provisional” ballots, which will be counted only if they show up at election headquarters with a proper ID within a few days of the voting.
The more restrictive the law, the greater the likelihood that it will tip a close election by turning away legal voters–mostly the poor, minorities and the elderly. It’s not a coincidence that these voters tend to vote Democratic. In fact, the State of Indiana, in its filings with the Supreme Court, admits that the litigation represents “politics by other means.” This flippant attitude toward the right to vote permeates the state’s argument. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has shown signs that it shares the view that turning voters away from the polls is constitutionally unimportant.
A coalition of Democratic Party officials and activists promptly challenged the Indiana law. A federal district court dismissed their challenge on the ground that they had not shown that the law would actually prevent anyone from voting. The plaintiffs presented an exhaustive study by a well-known election expert estimating the number of registered Indiana voters who lacked ID at nearly 1 million; the district judge, however, dismissed the report as “utterly incredible and unreliable.”
On appeal, Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit admitted that “some people who have not bothered to obtain a photo ID will not bother to do so just to be allowed to vote.” He further admits that “no doubt most people who don’t have photo ID are low on the economic ladder and thus, if they do vote, are more likely to vote for Democratic than Republican candidates.” But what’s the big deal? It’s only a few voters.