Voter ID Shell Game

8 05 2008

On Wednesday May 6th, a dozen nuns and a group of students from South Bend, Indiana were reportedly told they could not cast a regular ballot in the state’s primary because they did not government-issued ID’s, such as a driver’s ID or U.S. passport, as mandated by Indiana’s restrictive voter ID law.

According to news reports, the nuns were in their 80s and 90s, residents of a nearby nursing home, and voted their whole lives. The did not have valid driver’s licenses, since they do not drive, and only owned outdated U.S. passports. Some students had a valid college ID or out of state drivers license, but neither acceptable under Indiana’s photo ID law, the most burdensome in the country.

Prior to the law’s passage voter’s could have casted a regular ballot Hoosiers did not have to produce a photo ID at the polls. As long as their digital and real signatures matched, and they filled out an affidavit attesting to their identity. In person voter fraud carry stiff fines and jail time.

Under the new law enacted in July 2005, the law requires voters in Indiana to present a valid government issued photo ID to cast a ballot. Those without the ID can only cast a provisional ballot, which may be counted only after voters prove their identity at their local county election office. Drivers IDs must be renewed periodically and voters need to ensure that their information on rolls accurately are updated by re-registering whenever they move or change their name.

Like most statehouses in the country the law passed along partisan lines commanding a great deal of Republican support while drawing a lawsuit from the state’s Democratic party and civil rights groups. Opponents argued the law created unnecessary obstacles for persons less likely to own such IDs, including the young, poor, the disabled, the elderly, and people of color.

Last week, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s controversial voter photo ID law. Justice Stevens, in writing the lead opinion for Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, maintained that the state had a compelling interest “in preventing voter fraud, public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process has independent significance, because it encourages citizen participation in the democratic process,” even though the state had not found any evidence of voter fraud. Indiana’s law is also silent on far more common types of voter fraud such as absentee ballot fraud or ballot stuffing.

Nevertheless, Justice Stevens nonchalantly noted, “For most voters who need them, the inconvenience of making a trip to the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles), gathering the required documents, and posing for a photograph surely does not qualify as a substantial burden on the right to vote, or even represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting.”  Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts also joined Stevens’ opinion.

Justice Antonin Scalia echoed those sentiments in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in saying, “The Indiana law affects different voters differently, but [the] heavy burdens are no more than the different impacts of the single burden that the law uniformly imposes on all voters.”

But, according to the Associated Press, the nuns were in wheel chairs and electric carts. Its not hard to see how getting to the BMV may constitute more than the usual burn for the elderly. Another student was not informed by poll workers that she could cast a provisional ballot, which in effect eliminates the option of certifying her vote at the county clerk’s office.

Justice David Souter in an unsparing dissent joined by Justice Ruth Ginsburg anticipated such obstacles and concluded that the Indiana law failed “to justify the practical limitations placed on the right to vote,” and imposed an “unreasonable burden” on poor and elderly voters. 

Additionally, Souter also emphasized that the photo ID law also imposed an unjustified economic burden that comes “uncomfortably close to the outright $1.50 fee (poll tax)” struck down by the Supreme Court decades ago. When adjusted for inflation the $1.50 poll tax forty years ago, which is less than $10 in 2008, is comparable to $3-$12 currently charged for a state issued photo ID elsewhere. A U.S. passport can cost as much as $100. Such barriers may actually frustrate the voting process and actually undermine public confidence.

In fact, upon learning what happened to the elderly sisters that were turned away at the polls another group of nuns living in the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross also decided not to vote in protest.

None of this seemed to phase Indiana’s Secretary of State Todd Rokita a proponent of photo ID. “Indiana’s Voter ID Law applies to everyone,” he said. “From all accounts that we’ve heard, the sisters were aware of the photo ID requirements and chose not to follow them.”

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