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Supreme Court case: Should you be able to vote without a photo ID?

Arguments over Indiana's voter-identification law, the most stringent in the US, will be heard Wednesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2008

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures/ RIch Clabaugh–STAFF


In 2005, the Indiana state legislature passed a law requiring all voters to show government-issued photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot.

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State officials promoted the measure as protection against voter fraud. Opponents denounced it as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress Democratic voter turnout in Indiana.

On Wednesday, the issue arrives at the US Supreme Court where the justices are being asked to decide whether requiring would-be voters to show photo ID violates the right to vote.

The case is being closely watched because it could establish new constitutional benchmarks in advance of the approaching 2008 general elections. If the high court upholds the Indiana law, the action would give a green light to the kinds of aggressive efforts to fight voter fraud favored by many Republicans. If instead the court invalidates the Indiana law, it would signal a heightened duty to keep it as easy as possible for all citizens to exercise their right to vote.

"This case is going to have serious ramifications not only for photo-ID laws but for what the right to vote means, and to what extent state and local governments have the ability to infringe that right," says Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Other analysts say the Indiana voter-ID case is being blown out of proportion.

"There may be much less at stake in this case than meets the eye," Bradley Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said in a recent press briefing. "For all the excitement it has generated, the fact is there is very little evidence that there is a lot of voter fraud that these [ID] laws will prevent, and there is very little evidence that people aren't able to vote because of these laws."

Mr. Smith says the Supreme Court should have waited for a better case. Others disagree.

"Indiana has enacted the most stringent and restrictive voter identification requirement in the United States," writes Kenneth Falk, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, in his brief to the court. "The severe burden imposed by the statute is not, and cannot be, justified."

While the vast majority of Indiana voters possess either a driver's license or some other form of photo ID, an estimated 43,000 Indiana residents do not. The state will issue a photo identification card free of charge to anyone who requests it, but critics say assembling the three documents necessary to get the free ID card can cost significant time and money.

The burden of the law falls primarily on elderly, disabled, poor, and minority voters. Those who fall within such classifications generally vote for Democrats, critics of the law say.

Two Democratic officials, the Indiana Democratic Party, and four public interest groups challenged the law in US district court. A federal judge ruled the law was constitutional. The ruling was upheld 2 to 1 by the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The Supreme Court agreed in September to hear the appeal.