Photo ID Voting Requirement Under Scrutiny in Supreme Court

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a case that will determine whether an Indiana law requiring all voters to present a government-issued photo identification before voting is unconstitutional. Opponents of the law argue that it unfairly impacts elderly people of color and the poor.

Michael J. Pitts, associate professor of law at the Indiana University School of Law, says the decision on today’s arguments could go either way.

“Not even the best political experts could predict the outcome to this case,” Pitt suggests. With little precedent on the issue, “The Supreme court is basically operating on a clean slate.”

Other states have also grappled with the question of government-issued photo IDs, and litigation is pending in federal court against similar laws in Georgia and Arizona.

In July of 2007, the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) acting on behalf of a broad coalition of advocacy groups including the Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit to clarify whether the ID statute violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

“This requirement is going to burden some people’s ability to vote. Studies show that people included in that category are disproportionately the poor, elderly and minorities,” says Kenneth Falk, legal director for the Indiana ACLU.

The purpose of the government-issued photo ID statute is to eliminate voter fraud, such as ballots being cast by deceased citizens. But, according to Pitts, government-issued ID requirements are ineffective.

“It doesn’t stop voter registration fraud. The only thing a government-issued identification stops is a person actually appearing at a polling place impersonating (a voter), ‘voter-impersonation fraud.’ There isn’t a lot of evidence that that has occurred.”

Historically, there have been many attempts to stymie the votes of people of color, who coincidently make up a large portion of low-income voters. Most notably, poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses were adopted by many states in the late 1800s to disenfranchise Blacks in the South. Many legal experts nowadays argue that mandating certain types of IDs is yet another attempt to disenfranchise this demographic.

“Government-issued photo identification cards have a tremendous partisan slant. Republicans overwhelmingly support them. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose them,” says Pitts.

Proponents of the law argue that the government-issued photo ID requirement is not a burden but might be merely a slight inconvenience for voters, who will have to carry their IDs to the polls.

In the state of Indiana it is particularly difficult to get an ID. An original birth certificate and other supplementary materials must be presented. Some people, particularly the elderly living in nursing homes and homeless individuals, don’t have that documentation and the additional burden of cost and time is placed on them.

As much as 10 percent of the nation’s voting-age citizens — more than 20 million people — do not have a government-issued ID, according to phone surveys and studies cited in a Los Angeles Times report.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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