The Supreme Court has endorsed an Indiana law described by one appellate judge as a "not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage-day turnout." The Court's surprise 6-3 ruling in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board upheld the nation's strictest voter identification law, complete with onerous requirements that exceed the cost of the once-banished poll tax.
Voters in twenty-five states are required to show some identifying document—a driver's license, utility bill, Social Security card, etc..—but Indiana landed before the Court for their obscenely strict law that forces every single voter to show only a government-issued photo-ID before voting. If your grandma in Indiana leaves her driver's license at home, she has 10 days to present it to officials or her vote won't count.
In Indiana, getting your government-issued photo identification requires a birth certificate and a passport, a requirement, as Justice Breyer notes, that amounts to a poll tax:
For one thing, an Indiana nondriver, most likely to be poor, elderly, or disabled, will find it difficult and expensive to travel to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, particularly if he or she resides in one of the many Indiana counties lacking a public transportation system. See ante, at 6–7 (SOUTER, J., dissenting) (noting that out of Indiana’s 92 counties, 21 have no public transportation system at all and 32 others restrict public transportation to regional county service).
For another, many of these individuals may be uncertain about how to obtain the underlying documentation, usually a passport or a birth certificate, upon which the statute insists. And some may find the costs associated with these documents unduly burdensome (up to $12 for a copy of a birth certificate; up to $100 for a passport). By way of comparison, this Court previously found unconstitutionally burdensome a poll tax of $1.50 (less than $10 today, inflation-adjusted).
The Republican-backed law is ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud, but even Republican campaign consultants concede that voter fraud is a baseless scare tactic.
"My experience is that in-person voter fraud is nonexistent," [Royal Masset, a consultant who by his own estimate has been involved in some 5,000 Republican campaigns in Texas] says. "It doesn't happen, and if you really analyze it, it makes no sense because who's going to take the risk of going to jail on something so blatant that maybe changes one vote?"Indiana's law is targeted at people who don't always carry identification: minorities and the poor, who, coincidentally, tend to support Democrats.
Voter fraud does exist, say the experts, but in more systematic ways, through ballot box stuffing, voter machine manipulation, registration list manipulation and absentee balloting.
The opinion written by Justice Stevens doesn't sully the Court with these partisan concerns, so long as a state conjures up a theoretical fear of fraud. The Stevens standard allows states to present a "merely plausible non-discriminatory interest to justify an election law." So what was Indiana's "plausible" fear? Apparently, a guy in Washington may have impersonated another in a recent gubernatorial election, and Tammany Hall used to run New York City. That's it.
As a result, Florida and Georgia, like Indiana, can continue to require voters to show a government-issued photo ID, while New Mexico, Ohio and Texas can force voters to show up with utility bills or Social Security cards.
It remains to be seen if other Republican-controlled legislatures rush to impose strict voter ID requirements. Those that do should be warned that their efforts could backfire:
Lawyers who challenged the case cited the experience of one would-be Indiana voter, Valerie Williams, who was turned away from the polling place in November 2006 by officials who told her that a telephone bill, a Social Security letter with her address and an expired driver’s license were no longer sufficient.
“Of course, I threw a fit,” she said in a January interview with The New York Times, recalling how she cast a provisional ballot which was never counted. Ms. Williams, in her early 60’s, is black — and is a Republican.
Requirements for Voter Identification [National Council Of State Legislatures]
Supreme Court Weighs Voter ID Requirements [NPR]
Supreme Court Upholds Voter Identification Law in Indiana [The New York Times]