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Politics is front and center at the Supreme Court today as the justices examine the constitutionality of laws requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. More than 20 states have enacted such laws in recent years, and Democrats contend that they suppress voter turnout.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Since the fateful 2000 election, Republicans in many states have pushed for voter ID laws to stave off what they see as a major problem: vote fraud through voter impersonation at the polls. But studies have shown the problem does not exist.

Democrat Tova Wang and her Republican counterpart conducted research and together filed a federally mandated report on this question.

Ms. TOVA WANG (Democrat, Program Officer, Democracy Fellow, The Century Foundation): We found that although there is fraud in the system, it doesn't take place at the polling place.

TOTENBERG: Royal Masset, who by his own estimate has been involved in some 5,000 Republican campaigns in Texas, agrees.

Mr. ROYAL MASSET (Republican Strategist): My experience is that in-person voter fraud is nonexistent. It doesn't happen, and if you really analyze it, it makes no sense because who's going to take the risk of going to jail on something so blatant that maybe changes one vote?

TOTENBERG: Voter fraud does exist, say the experts, but in more systematic ways, through ballot box stuffing, voter machine manipulation, registration list manipulation and absentee balloting.

Still, 24 states have passed some form of voter ID law. Indiana's is the strictest: It requires that anyone voting in person must present a current government photo ID.

If you don't have one, you can vote provisionally at the polls, but you must present the required ID at an appropriate government office within 10 days or your vote will not be counted. People who don't have IDs can get them free from the state, but must have appropriate documents, such as a certified birth certificate, and other secondary proof.

The Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union went to court seeking to block the law, noting that there is not a single recorded case of voter-impersonation fraud in Indiana's history. A federal appeals court acknowledged that the law poses a heavier burden on groups that tend to vote Democratic - minorities, the poor and the elderly. But, the court said, the burden is slight.

Today in the Supreme Court, the state will argue that the law is necessary to promote public confidence in the system.

Indiana Attorney General Steven Carter.

Attorney General STEVEN CARTER (Indiana): There is concern about fraud in the future, so it's a preventative approach that hopefully can maintain the integrity of the voting process.

TOTENBERG: Countering that argument will be lawyer Paul Smith, representing those challenging the law.

Mr. PAUL SMITH (Lawyer): Under the Supreme Court's doctrine, the fundamental right to vote is protected from laws which look like legitimate regulations but don't actually serve any purpose while imposing significant burden.

TOTENBERG: The devil, Smith contends, is in the details of Indiana's law. He cites, for example, the case of a woman who made three trips to the motor vehicle bureau in a vain attempt to obtain a free voter ID card. Her problem, even after she obtained her birth certificate, was that it was not in her married name. While the state does provide free voter ID cards, lawyer Smith observes, voters incur considerable costs in time and money to secure the documents the state requires as a condition for getting the cards.

The League of Women Voters has filed a brief with concrete examples. One of them is Kim Tillman, an Indianapolis stay-at-home wife of a janitor and mother of seven children ages 1 to 11. In order to get the free voter ID card, she had to get her birth certificate from out of state, a process that she said would have cost as much as $50. And that was money she needed for household bills. Not being able to vote, she says, made her feel like she isn't a citizen.

Ms. KIM TILLMAN (Resident, Indianapolis): I believe that I should be able to have a voice, you know, to say who I would like governing the state that I live in. But unfortunately because of the state laws, I'm not able to do that.

TOTENBERG: The state contends that Mrs. Tillman could have voted if she had gone to the state offices within the 29 days before an election and sworn out an affidavit saying she is indigent, a process she would have to repeat prior to each election. There is no indigency affidavit provided on Election Day at the polls.

In the most recent mayoral election in Indianapolis, the city documented 34 cases of voters who had voted repeatedly and consistently in past years and whose signatures matched their registrations, but who had to cast provisional votes because they did not have the proper ID. Only two of those 34 voters went back within the required 10-day period after the election with the appropriate ID so their votes would be counted.

Attorney General Carter notes that 34 voters out of 160,000 isn't all that many.

Attorney General CARTER: So those who didn't have the proper photo identification was really a miniscule number in this urban county.

TOTENBERG: Voting rights lawyers counter that there were likely many more who just turned around and went home instead of taking the time to vote provisionally. In any event, they contend, even 34 votes, when duplicated in other locations throughout the state, can add up to hundreds, even thousands of votes which could decide a closely contested election.

And the challengers argue that without some proven problem with voter impersonation, the ID requirement is an undue burden on the right to vote and the right to run for office on a fair playing field.

Again, lawyer Paul Smith.

Mr. SMITH: If you think of an election as a race, a sprint, and if you could put up three hurdles in front of both runners, that it's an equal sprint, and in the end it's a fair contest. But if you can add an extra hurdle in front of one of the runners and not the other, then it doesn't prevent the runner from finishing the race, it just makes it a lot harder to win because you have this additional burden.

TOTENBERG: The state, however, counters that all voting regulations impose some inconvenience.

Secretary of State Todd Rokita.

Secretary of State TODD ROKITA (Indiana): There are burdens to register to vote; there are burdens in gas or shoe leather in going to the polls. That doesn't mean they were disenfranchised. They chose not to go through the parameters for voting in person on Election Day that required in Indiana.

TOTENBERG: State Attorney General Carter adds that even though registered voters without proper ID must take extra steps to legitimize their votes...

Attorney General CARTER: The elections don't sneak up on any of us. There is an opportunity to start that process if need be several weeks or months before the election.

TOTENBERG: There are no hard figures on how many eligible voters are without any current state or federal government photo ID. The state points out that in the hotly contested 2006 federal election in Indiana, voter participation was up by 2 percent.

But the Census Bureau and the Federal Highway Transportation Agency estimate that across the country, about 11 percent of voting-age citizens, some 21 million Americans, lack any form of current government-issued photo ID. The ubiquitous driver's license doesn't exist for many city dwellers who use public transportation, or for those too poor to own a car, or for senior citizens who no longer drive.

The lower courts have come to different conclusions about voter ID laws in different states. Some laws have been struck down and some upheld. Without exception, though, the judges have cast their votes along party lines, with Republican appointees in favor of the voter ID laws and Democratic appointees against. Now, with the legacy of Bush versus Gore lurking in the background, the Supreme Court is poised to pack another political punch.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can learn more about voter ID requirements around the country at npr.org.

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