While voters are already turning out the vote in the presidential primaries, the U.S. Supreme Court grapples with what has been dubbed “the most important case involving the mechanics of election administration in decades” or, more tongue-in-cheek, as, “Bush v. Gore II.” However, the future of voting rights for Americans is no laughing matter. Although opponents and supporters are starkly split on the effects of voter identification requirements – one warning voter disenfranchisement, the other pressing prevention of phantasmal voter fraud - the high court responded “coolly” in yesterday's first oral arguments of Crawford v. Marion County Elections Board.
Earlier in the week, several news outlets and blogs commented on how this “important case” on the constitutionality of Indiana's voter photo ID requirement would impact the voting rights of American citizens, particularly in the 2008 presidential election.
“The Supreme Court case comes at a time when the nation does face a major problem with its elections, but it is the opposite of the one the Indiana law prescribes: it's not that too many people are voting but too few,” wrote Jeffrey Toobin in this issue of the New Yorker. Toobin, along with Ian Urbina of the New York Times cited Indiana's existing law preventing “voter impersonation” and how the state has never cited such a case in its history.
“Not to sound cute, but those who favor Indiana's law and others like it can't ID any case of voter-identity fraud that the law might prevent. Documented fraud problems, such as those related to absentee ballots or registration aren't affected. If states really were worried about election integrity, the laws would be wider and more on point,” Wednesday's issue of the Palm Beach Post editorialized.
Although there is no record of in-person voter impersonation while real problems of voter registration fraud and absentee ballot fraud remain unresolved by voter ID requirements, supporters of the state law
still faultily argue it is necessary to prevent voter fraud by citing a newspaper report on the state's voter registration rolls being swollen with 300 dead people in 2000, according to Dennis Powell of ABC News.
“Strict photo ID laws for voters are really about denying certain Americans of their right to vote,” Project Vote board member, Donna Massey said in this statement Monday. “Research shows that young, poor, minority and elderly voters are more likely to lack photographic identification,” she said, citing a recent University of Washington study that found 22% of Indiana's Black voters lack proper ID compared to 16% of white voters. The income gap was just as stark with 21% of voters earning less than $40,000 a year lacking proper ID compared to just 13% earning more than $40,000.
Obtaining necessary ID is another burden on voters as applicants for nondriver's photo ID must obtain a birth certificate, which may require a fee. “And because some Indiana citizens were born in states or counties that require a photo ID to get the birth certificate – including Marion County, the largest county in Indiana – a person who seeks a birth certificate in order to get a photo ID could find himself trapped in an unending bureaucratic loop,” wrote Sri Srinivasan and Walter Dellinger of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in this Slate article.
“The only reason politicians support these laws is to give their party an advantage over the other,” Massey said.
Echoing the Washington University study and others that found voter ID laws impact certain groups more than others, Brown University's new study, released Tuesday, found voter ID laws disproportionately reduce political participation among foreign-born citizens and low income voters, according to this Houston Chronicle blog entry. The study found that “even small suppressive effects on naturalization...work in the wrong direction and should be taken into account as people evaluate the benefits and costs of more stringent identification requirements.” Read the Brown University report here.
“In the 1980's and '90s the Supreme Court came up with a test for assessing any law that placed hurdles before voters. The justices ruled that courts must weigh the value of the law to the state against the burden it placed on voters,” Urbina wrote. “How the court applies that test in this case could set the standard for challenges to election rules across the country,” including state restrictions on voter registration, list maintenance issues, and the handling of provisional ballots.
Last year, 27 states proposed strict voter ID laws, “seeking to increase identification requirements for registration or voting,” Urbina reported Monday, with a prediction for “legislative and legal battles in at least that many states, depending on how the Supreme Court ruled,” by the Brennan Center for Justice.
After Wednesday's hearing, however, “the justices, with conservatives leading the way, said the Democrats had failed to prove the measure would have much impact,” wrote David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times. Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned why plaintiffs want the high court to “'invalidate a statute'” on the basis of a “'minor inconvenience' to a small percentage of voters.'”
Only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg viewed the state law “unfair and unconstitutional” with “obvious consequences” because those who are “'indigent' are not likely to have a valid driver's license, and they will not be able to go to a county courthouse to get an ID card from the state,” Savage recounted. “'The result will be skewed in favor of the opposite party [the Republicans] because people will not be able to vote,' she said. 'That's not hypothetical. It's real.”
The question of how the court's ruling will affect the 2008 election is still a concern, but should not be cause for discouragement. The court is expected to reach a decision in late June, when most states have adjourned, thereby reducing the likelihood that states will introduce and pass new voter ID laws before November. The greatest danger for 2008 lies with states like North Carolina and California, which both introduced multiple voter ID bills in 2007 and will not adjourn their 2008 sessions until later in the summer. You may track election bills in these states using Project Vote's free bill tracking service, www.ElectionLegislation.org.