Supreme Court Upholds Indiana's Voter ID Law

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can require voters to show identity cards, rejecting arguments that this amounts to an unconstitutional burden, especially on the elderly and minority groups.

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Depending on who you ask, the case before the United States Supreme Court involved an effort to fight voter fraud, or it involved an attempt to keep certain voters away from the polls. The Supreme Court upheld a voter identification law. It was passed in Indiana, which holds a primary next week.

The rule says you cannot vote unless you provide a current government-issued photo ID. If you're the kind of person who's too poor to drive - that is the kind of person without, say, a driver's license - the state will give you another ID if you come up with your birth certificate and other proof.

But the rules in this state and many others sparked intense debate, as NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The Voter ID Law was enacted in Indiana, as in other states, by a Republican-dominated legislature on a party line vote. The Democratic Party challenged the Indiana law, contending that it imposed an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote for poor and elderly voters.

The Democrats contended that many poor and elderly have no driver's licenses and cannot afford the fees to obtain their birth certificates, nor can they afford transportation to the county seat before each election to file an affidavit of indigency, the only other way that they can vote.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court conceded that the law does pose burdens, and it conceded that there is no recorded case of voter fraud by impersonation in Indiana. But the justices still upheld the law on a 3-3-3 vote. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the lead opinion for himself, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy.

The three said that without concrete proof of the burden imposed and proof of the numbers of people affected, the law could not be invalidated because it represents a legitimate attempt to prevent fraud in the future and inspire voter confidence.

Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito said any state law would be okay as long as it was not intentionally discriminatory. And Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Briar dissented. They noted, for instance, that the fees for obtaining your birth certificate alone are more even adjusted for inflation than the $1.50 poll tax the Court struck down 42 years ago.

Election expert Rick Hasen of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles filed a brief in the case and was disappointed at the outcome.

Professor RICK HASEN (Election Expert, Loyola Law School): I fear that this opinion is a green light for legislators to try and gain an electoral advantage. And I think this opinion, although it's well meaning, is likely to lead to more fighting.

TOTENBERG: Hasen predicted that Democrats would now try to enact same-day registration laws in states where they control the legislature. Thor Hern, who filed a brief on behalf of key Congressional Republicans, didn't disagree.

Mr. THOR HERN (Attorney): I saw this an effort of the Court to stay out of, to the extent they can, these election disputes and let voters and the election officials decide the outcome.

TOTENBERG: NYU Law Professor Richard Pildes said he thinks the Court, in the absence of much evidence, made the right decision. The justices, he said, may be willing to intervene if there is proof that thousands of voters are affected in Indiana.

Professor RICHARD PILDES (Law, New York University): 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: Stanford Law Professor Pam Karlan, who represented the challengers in the Indiana case, predicts most litigation will now occur after close elections.

Professor PAM KARLAN (Law, Stanford University): You're now going to face lawsuits often brought after close elections by individuals who were 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: NYU's Professor Pildes notes that almost all other Western democracies have independent commissions, not partisan actors, set up election rules.

Prof. PILDES: As long as we have partisan, self-interested political actors in charge of these issues, these kinds of fights are going to be endless.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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