Voter ID Law Vindicated
At issue was the constitutionality of the Voter ID Law passed in 2005. It requires persons casting a ballot at polling stations on election day or in advance at the office of the circuit court clerk to furnish government-issued photo identification. Exceptions exist for those who cast absentee ballots, along with those who live in state-licensed nursing homes. Residents with religious objections to having their photo taken for a government ID may cast a provisional ballot and file an affidavit with the circuit court clerk within ten days. A similar exception exists for those who fail to furnish an ID at the polls. Photo ID's are not required for voter registration, yet they are issued free of charge.
The suit was brought by two parties, one led by the Indiana and Marion County Democratic Party, and the other by two elected officials and a host of non-profit organizations. They were consolidated, and argue that the law substantially burdens their right to vote in violation of the 14th Amendment. Moreover, they charge that it is an unnecessary and unsuccessful means of combating alleged fraud, not to mention disenfranchising some and placing an "unjustified burden on those who cannot readily obtain such identification." There were an estimated 43,000 state residents without a state issued license or identification as of 2005.
The majority rejects these arguments, and proceeds to dissect them point-by-point. They refuse to apply a 1966 decision ruling a Virginia poll tax unconstitutional, placing state justifications for the statute alongside the burdens it imposes upon voters. State interests include deterring and detecting voter fraud, cleansing voter rolls of displaced and deceased persons, and safeguarding voter confidence. Fraud, while rarely documented, is deemed a real risk and a threat to throw a close contest. Inflated voter rolls are a similar threat, and the third justification, voter confidence, is held in the highest esteem, for it encourages voter participation in the process.
For those without state-issued ID's, the majority find that the burden of obtaining one is not substantial. Stevens deals with a looming objection near the end of his opinion, namely that this statute is a Republican-inspired trick to reduce Democratic turnout, as those without ID's are disproportionately members of demographic groups that tend to favor the Democratic Party. While not dismissing partisan intentions, the majority once more affirms the legitimacy of the law on grounds of "neutral and sufficiently strong" justifications.
Justice Scalia concurs with the judgment, but fears that the majority opens a Pandora's box for future litigation in federal courts, at once dismissing the petitioners' premise as "irrelevant" and the burden imposed by the Voter ID Law "minimal and justified." Applying past precedent, Scalia concludes that "burdens are severe if they go beyond the merely inconvenient." He thus defers to states to govern their own elections short of imposing "a severe and unjustified overall burden upon the right to vote."
Justice Souter takes the majority to task, arguing that the burdens imposed by the Indiana law is indeed severe and unjustified, specifically the "significant percentage...of individuals...likely to be deterred from voting." These burdens include travel costs associated with obtaining a new ID, not to mention fees associated with acquiring a mandated birth certificate or passport. Together they would fall disproportionately on "the poor, the old, and the immobile." Souter concludes that Indiana's law is one of the most restrictive in the country. Justice Breyer, in his own dissent, doesn't shed much additional light on the case other than to hold up laws in Florida and Georgia as less restrictive means of pursuing similar ends.
Given the green light the Supreme Court gave for voter identification requirements, the ruling is likely to have ramifications elsewhere. For example, Wisconsin's state legislature passed similar legislation three times, but met the governor's veto in each instance. Republicans in the state legislature vow to continue pushing this agenda item.
Given that next Tuesday's contest in Indiana is central to only the Democrats, disenfranchisement or deterrence attributed to the statute isn't likely to have a meaningful impact, although we have witnessed significant demographic differences between Sens. Clinton and Obama in the nominating contests to date. However, come fall, if the habitually "red" Hoosier State is in play, the Voter ID Act may make it crimson.