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U.S. high court upholds voter photo I.D.

Monday's ruling gives a green light to aggressive antifraud efforts often favored by the GOP.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2008

Upheld: Indiana solicitor general Thomas Fisher talked to reporters outside the Supreme Court in January after a hearing on the state's voter ID law.

Evan Vucci/AP/file


Requiring prospective voters to present a photo ID before casting a ballot does not violate the right to vote.

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In a 6-to-3 decision announced on Monday, the US Supreme Court upheld a 2005 Indiana law that requires voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting.

The opinion is important because it helps set a standard for the upcoming 2008 elections in November and it gives a green light to the kind of aggressive antifraud efforts favored by many Republicans. Opponents said the Indiana photo ID law is among the toughest in the nation and argued that it will discourage some voters – particularly those who are elderly, disabled, poor, or minority – from participating in the elections.

Democratic officials went even further. They complained that the law was a thinly veiled attempt to suppress Democratic voter turnout in Indiana.

In upholding the law, the majority justices said the burdens of the voter ID requirement did not amount to a constitutional violation.

"On the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the statute imposes excessively burdensome requirements on any class of voters," writes Justice John Paul Stevens, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Three other justices concurred in the judgment, providing the Stevens opinion the necessary majority.

"This is a huge victory for defenders of such laws, and the effect of the loss for critics will begin to be felt next week when Indiana holds its presidential primary using the voter ID law the court just upheld," says Nathaniel Persily, an election law expert and professor at Columbia Law School.

Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Brad Smith said the court recognized that "not every minor burden on voting constitutes disenfranchisement." He added, "Plaintiffs failed to produce a single person actually prevented from voting by Indiana's law, and the court rightly demanded evidence of real disenfranchisement before limiting the states' ability to ask for what most Americans see as a common sense requirement – that voters present a photo ID at the polls."

Critics of the law expressed disappointment with the decision. "The Supreme Court has abdicated its role as the defender of our democracy," says Kathryn Kolbert, president of the advocacy group, People For the American Way.

"The justices should clear a path to the ballot box for voters, not help block the way," Ms. Kolbert says. "The justices are letting politicians erect barricades against some groups of voters – and that's absolutely unacceptable."

Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in the judgment, but wrote separately in opposition to Justice Stevens's approach of weighing whether the Indiana measure imposed a special burden on some voters. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Justice Scalia's concurrence.

"Weighing the burden of a nondiscriminatory voting law upon each voter and concomitantly requiring exceptions for vulnerable voters would effectively turn back decades of equal-protection jurisprudence," Scalia writes.

"A voter complaining about such a law's effect on him has no valid equal-protection claim because, without proof of discriminatory intent, a generally applicable law with disparate impact is not unconstitutional," he writes.