WASHINGTON - In a decision with major implications for the November national elections, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday upheld a controversial state law that Democrats and a number of national civil rights groups believe could undermine the right of tens of thousands of poor and minority voters to cast ballots.
Six of the court's nine justices ruled that Indiana's voter-identification law, which requires all voters to produce a government-issued photo identification at their polling places, did not violate the Constitution, as Democrats and a number of national civil rights organisations had argued.
Writing for the majority, Justine John Paul Stevens asserted that the state had a "valid interest" in preventing voter fraud and that, "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."
Noting that the law was passed by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed by the state's Republican governor, Stevens noted that "simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators" did not invalidate other justifications for the law.
But three of the justices said they disagreed. "Indiana's 'Voter ID law' threatens to impose a nontrivial burden on the voting right of tens of thousands of the state's citizens, and a significant percentage of those individuals are likely to be deterred from voting," wrote Justice David Souter, who also noted that the state had failed to offer evidence that voter fraud of the kind the law was purportedly designed to address was a significant problem.
Democrats also decried the majority's conclusion. "The court's decision today places obstacles to the fundamental rights of American citizens -- especially the poor, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities -- to participate in the electoral process," said the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
Democrats are particularly concerned because unprecedented numbers of voters -- particularly younger voters who historically have been least likely to take part in elections -- are turning out for the party's primary elections this year, most of them driven by the excitement generated by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign and the certainty that they will be able to vote for the first African American or the first woman to be the presidential candidate of one of the two major U.S. parties. The party is hoping that enthusiasm will produce a record turnout -- which tends to favour Democrats -- in November.
Monday's decision marks the judicial culmination, at least for now, of a raging controversy between Republicans, who have claimed that vote fraud is a significant problem in many parts of the U.S., and Democrats, who argue that Republicans are using voter identification laws to suppress the turnout by voters -- particularly the poor, racial minorities, and the elderly -- who are more likely to vote Democratic.
In 2005, Indiana's then-Republican-dominated state legislature approved the nation's most restrictive voter-identification law that also created the basis for a similar, but slightly less restrictive, Georgia law that was passed by its legislature the following year.
The Indiana law requires voters to present government-issued photo identification, normally a driver's license or a passport, to election monitors when they show up at their polling place. Several organisations, including the Indiana Democratic Party, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), immediately challenged the law, arguing that it imposed undue burdens on eligible voters who lacked the required identification.
"What does the court's decision say about the direction this country is headed on voting rights?" said Maude Hurd, the president of ACORN, a national anti-poverty group that has helped 1.8 million people register to vote. "It seems we are ready to turn back the clock on gains made in civil rights to ensure all Americans have a voice in the electorate and go back to rules that make it easier for one group to vote than it is for another."
A series of studies have found that between 10 and 13 percent of eligible voters don't own the kinds of identification currently required by Indiana, according to Justin Levitt, a counsel at the Brennan Centre for justice at New York University's School of Law, which filed a "friend of the court" brief in the Indiana case.
One 2007 Indiana study found that 13.3 percent of registered voters there lack the required ID, including more than 18 percent of registered black voters and more than 20 percent of voters aged 18 to 34.
"There are millions of eligible voters who don't have the ID these laws require -- senior citizens who don't drive, students, the disabled, low-income people, all of whom have the right to vote," said Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way Foundation (PAWF), a liberal civil rights groups, which also filed a supporting brief in the case. "These laws are intended to suppress voter turnout."
While Republicans insist that such laws are intended only to prevent voter fraud, they have been hard put to provide evidence that in-person voting -- as opposed to absentee voting where some fraud has taken place -- has been a problem in recent years.
Among Republicans, noted the former political director for the Texas Republican Party, Royal Masset, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle last year, it is an "article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections." He told the newspaper that he personally didn't agree with that assessment but added that requiring photo identification could reduce legitimate Democratic voting enough to effectively add three percent to the Republican vote.
Indiana is one of more than 20 states that passed restrictive voter identification laws, although Indiana, Georgia, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Florida, are by far the most restrictive. In some states, for example, photo identification could be satisfied by student cards, credit cards, or employee-issued identification; in other states, utility bills or rental receipts may be sufficient.
Levitt said he did not expect other states to pass Indiana-like legislation before the November elections, but Monday's decision "makes it likely that the identification laws in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida will be in effect in November and will keep otherwise eligible voters -- well into the thousands and maybe tens of thousands -- from voting."
Levitt and the ACLU noted that three of the justices, including Stevens, who voted to uphold the law in the face of a direct constitutional challenge, left open the possibility they could change their minds in a case brought by an eligible voter who was actually prevented from voting because of its identification requirements.
"We are very disappointed with today's decision," said ACLU legal director Steven Shapiro, "but it leaves the door open to future challenges in Indiana and elsewhere by registered voters who are denied their right to vote based on onerous and unconstitutional voter ID laws."
Evidence of dozens of such denials has been collected in recent elections in both Indiana and Georgia, although it is impossible to know how many voters without the required identification decided to stay home rather than try to cast their ballots, according to Levitt.
© 2008 Inter Press Service