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A vote against history

By upholding Indiana's voter ID law, the Supreme Court tarnishes its record of promoting democracy.

April 29, 2008

Through the 1950s and '60s, the Supreme Court extended the reach of American democracy. The court asserted its right to review legislative districting schemes that reduced the voting strength of urban voters -- mostly African Americans -- then used that power to tilt society toward equality. It also struck down literacy tests and poll taxes, contrived by malevolent election supervisors to deny blacks the chance to cast ballots. Those rulings made elections fairer and broadened participation, and they comprised a noble history of overcoming powerful resistance, which dignified the court.

So it is particularly dismaying to see the court retreat from that history, as it did Monday in upholding a voter identification system in Indiana. The state's voter ID law, enacted in 2005, nominally aims to stamp out the phenomenon of people not on the rolls casting ballots by impersonating registered voters. Never mind that America's principal voting problem is disinterest, not over-interest -- Indiana nevertheless requires that all voters obtain a state-issued photo ID, which entails a personal visit to a motor vehicle office (the law allows for some exemptions, but those involve casting a provisional ballot, then appearing before a clerk or board to complete an affidavit within 10 days).

Indiana has a right to safeguard the integrity of its elections, but its identification requirement imposes sufficiently burdensome rules that it raises the question of whether the state is actually trying to discourage certain types of people -- the poor, the elderly, the infirm -- from exercising their right to vote. It's one thing to deter fraud; it's another to deter voting, particularly by certain classes of voters.

Despite their potential for abuse, identification rules might be worth considering if Indiana were combating widespread voter impersonation. However, even the court's majority opinion recognized that "the record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history." So the state risks disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters to fix a problem that does not exist.

With its decision in this case, the Supreme Court encourages mischief and undermines its great history as an engine of democracy. As it ruled in 1964, in earlier, better days: "Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized." Would that the court had done so this week.

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