Carded at the Polls

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

IT'S LIKELY that yesterday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Indiana's voter ID law will spur debate in other states about whether to adopt similar provisions. The short answer is, they should not. And if they do, they should not use the Indiana law as a template.

While the justices split 6-3 over the constitutionality of the Indiana law requiring voters to present federally or state-issued photo identification at polling places, there was no dispute over the fact that in-person voter fraud is not a significant problem. As a matter of policy, the ID law is simply not needed; most voter fraud is committed through absentee ballots, and a requirement to present identification at polling places does nothing to address that. Nevertheless, the justices upholding the Indiana law concluded that the state had "important regulatory interests" in furthering methods to better ensure fraud-free elections; those in dissent saw the Indiana law as an impermissible burden that probably would disproportionately disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters.

Indiana has arguably the most onerous voter ID law on the books. Voters who do not have a government-issued ID are allowed to cast a provisional ballots at their neighborhood polling places, but they then must travel, within 10 days of the election, to their county courthouses to file affidavits attesting to their identity. Indiana's poor voters can also file indigence affidavits stating that they are unable to afford birth certificates or other documents required to obtain state-issued photo IDs. Those most at risk of disenfranchisement are disabled, elderly or poor citizens -- especially those in the 21 Indiana counties with no public transportation.

There are approaches under consideration or in use in other states that protect the integrity of elections while reducing the risk of disenfranchisement. Florida, for example, accepts a wider range of identification, including student IDs or IDs issued by employers. A longer roll-out period before photo identification is required at the polls would give voters more time to acquire the proper identification.

The Supreme Court yesterday upheld Indiana's law against what was essentially a pre-emptive challenge. The onus is now on the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and state watchdog groups to keep a close eye on the impact of the law. If, in practice, the law has the feared discriminatory effects, these groups should not hesitate to renew their challenge of it.

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