High Court Supports Indiana Voter ID Law

The Supreme Court backs an Indiana law that requires voters to show government-issued photo ID cards when they cast ballots. The challengers of the law say it puts an undue burden on many, including the poor and the elderly.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

North Carolina and Indiana both hold their Democratic primaries one week from tomorrow. And today the Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law. Almost half of all states have some form of voter ID laws, but only a few require photo IDs. Of those Indiana's law is by far the strictest. It requires a current government photo ID.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The Indiana law, like most others, was enacted by a Republican legislature on a party-line vote over Democratic protest. Republicans said the law was needed to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats said people who are poor or elderly often do not have such identification and are unable to get the certified birth certificate and other secondary proof of identification needed to get a state-provided ID in Indiana.

The Democrats challenged the state law in court, noting that there was not a single recorded case of voter impersonation fraud in the state's history. Today a splintered Supreme Court majority acknowledged that, but still upheld the voter ID law.

The lead opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens for himself, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, conceded that Indiana has no history of in-person voter fraud. But Stevens pointed to the 1868 Boss Tweed elections in New York as an example of flagrant voter impersonation fraud that's been documented elsewhere.

Stevens also conceded that the new voter ID requirement may have been enacted for partisan purposes, and may place a heavier burden on some citizens. But he said there's no concrete evidence of the number of voters who are disadvantaged and without such proof, a law that's non-discriminatory on its face and has a legitimate anti-fraud purpose cannot be struck down.

Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito wrote separately to say that in their view no voter has a valid claim against a law like this unless the voter can prove discriminatory intent. Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented. They said that those challenging the law had provided adequate evidence of significant burdens on the poor and the elderly.

Said Souter: The requirement that people who are poor and without cars travel potentially long distances without public transportation to their county seats within 10 days of each election to sign an Indigency Affidavit in order to vote translates into an economic burden uncomfortably close to the $1.50 poll tax that the court struck down 42 years ago.

Rick Hasen, a voting law expert from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, filed a brief in the case and was dismayed by today's ruling.

Professor RICHARD HASEN (Loyola Law School): First thing that the court has done is generally given a green light for voter ID laws and other kinds of election laws that may be motivated completely for partisan reasons. So long as the state can come forward with some neutral, non-discriminatory reason for the law, even if that's a pretext, it looks like the law will generally be upheld.

TOTENBERG: Thor Hearne, who filed a brief on behalf of key Congressional Republicans, agrees with that analysis.

Mr. THOR HEARNE (American Center for Voting Rights): It is going to be tough to make this kind of election challenges and succeed in the future.

TOTENBERG: NYU Law Professor Richard Pildes reads today's ruling as making it harder but not impossible to invalidate such laws. In the Indiana case, he noted, there was no evidentiary record for the court to act on.

Professor RICHARD PILDES (New York University): I do think that if it turns out to be the case that there are several thousand people who effectively are not able to vote as a result of these laws, I think that changes the issue very significantly. And I think the Supreme Court might well reexamine the issue at that point and conclude that there is a severe burden that these laws are imposing. But I think that if it's just, you know, 100 people, 150 people, I think the court would say the way to handle that is individually case by case, and it doesn't make the law unconstitutional as a whole.

TOTENBERG: But Stanford Law Professor Pam Karlan, who represented the challenges in Indiana, says there's no way for the courts to stay out of election cases as demonstrated in Bush v. Gore.

Professor PAM KARLAN (Stanford University): You're now going to face lawsuits often brought after close elections by individuals who are denied the right to vote in circumstances where the litigation will have to be done quickly. We saw, for example, in the 2000 election what happened, and it's entirely possible things like that will happen if it's a close election this fall.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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