A sharply divided federal appeals court in Chicago upheld an Indiana law Thursday that requires individuals to produce a government-issued photo identification card to vote.
The court rejected a challenge filed by Democrats and handicapped and homeless people that the statute places an unfair burden on voters.
The 2-1 decision by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is the first ruling by a federal appeals court upholding a statute requiring voters to show photo ID.
Judge Richard Posner wrote for the majority upholding the law, which is considered the strictest in the nation. He acknowledged that the law would "deter some people from voting" and that such individuals were likely to be poor and vote Democratic. Nonetheless, Posner said, it was telling that the plaintiffs had not produced one person who would be prevented from voting by the law.
Posner, an appointee of President Reagan, said the law would discourage voter fraud, which was difficult to detect and rarely prosecuted. Judge Diane S. Sykes, an appointee of President George W. Bush, joined Posner's decision.
Judge Terence T. Evans, an appointee of President Clinton, issued a tart dissent. "Let's not beat around the bush: The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic," Evans wrote.
He continued: "The percentage of eligible voters participating in elections has, for many years, been on a downward trajectory. With that being the case, one would think states would be looking for creative ways ... to increase voter participation. Yet, the Indiana law we sanction today does just the opposite."
The majority upheld the ruling of U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker of Indiana, who rejected a challenge to the law last year.
Kenneth Falk, the American Civil Liberties Union's head lawyer in Indiana, and William Groth, the Indianapolis lawyer who represented the Indiana Democratic Party in the case, said they would seek a rehearing from a larger panel of judges from the 7th Circuit, which considers appeals of federal cases from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
The Indiana law was passed by a Republican-dominated Legislature in 2005.
Indiana is one of more than a dozen states that have sought to tighten voter laws since the controversial 2000 presidential election: As of the November 2006 election, 24 states had enacted some form of voter identification law, up from 11 in 2000, according to the nonpartisan ElectionLine.org. California is one of 24 states that require some kind of identification for first-time voters who registered by mail and did not provide identification when they registered.
State courts in Georgia and Missouri have thrown out photo identification laws, saying they violated state voting rights laws, according to Ohio State University law professor Dan Tokaji, an election law expert.
In light of Thursday's ruling, Tokaji said, lawyers filing cases of this kind in the future "would do well to have a large number of plaintiffs who have been obstructed from voting as a result of the law."
Los Angeles' Loyola Law School professor Richard Hasen said he was "not surprised" by the decision because the Indiana statute has a specific provision that allows poor people to obtain a government-issued photo identification if they can't afford a car and therefore don't have a driver's license -- a provision of the law highlighted by Posner in the majority opinion.
But Evans said there was no evidence of voter fraud in the case record.
"At oral argument, the defenders of this law candidly acknowledged that no one in the history of Indiana had ever been charged with violating" the state law against voter fraud, Evans said.
In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification at polling places in 2008 and proof of citizenship by 2010. But the measure did not clear the Senate, and it is considered dead because of the Democratic takeover of Congress.