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Ruling on Voter ID Law May Spur Tighter State Regulation

April 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 Monday to uphold an Indiana law requiring voters to show photo identification at polling stations. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle examines the impact of the Supreme Court decisions on voters and state regulations.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indiana’s photo I.D. law has been called the strictest of its kind in the nation. Today, the Supreme Court added its opinion, ruling the law is well within the Constitution.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: What was the court’s reasoning behind today’s 6-3 decision? And what does it mean for next week’s primary in Indiana?

For that, we turn to NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

And, Marcia, remind us what was at issue before the court.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: All right. In 2005, Indiana passed what is acknowledged to be the most restrictive voter photo I.D. law in the country. It requires voters to produce a government-issued photo I.D. at the polling place.

It doesn’t apply to absentee ballots or to people who live and vote in a state licensed facility, such as a nursing home.

Shortly after it was enacted, two lawsuits were filed claiming that the law violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, that it burdens the right to vote. That was what was at issue before the court.

When the law was moving through the legislature, the Republicans in the Indiana legislature all supported it, claiming that it was important to curbing voter fraud.

All the Democrats opposed it, saying that there was no evidence of voter fraud at the polling place. It’s a law that’s designed to deter poor, elderly, minority voters, disabled voters, many of whom tend to vote Democratic.

Non-traditional partisan split

Marcia Coyle
The National Law Journal
This was the most partisan case to come before the Supreme Court since the Bush v. Gore case that decided the 2000 presidential election, partisan because so clearly Democrats and Republicans split on this, the constitutionality of this law.

RAY SUAREZ: So when the justices weighed in, did they split as neatly as Republicans and Democrats did in the fight in Indiana?

MARCIA COYLE: No, they did not. It's very interesting. You could probably say, Ray, that this was the most partisan case to come before the Supreme Court since the Bush v. Gore case that decided the presidential election, the 2000 presidential election, partisan because so clearly Democrats and Republicans split on this, the constitutionality of this law.

But the justices did not split in the usual liberal-versus-conservative division. You had three justices, Justice John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justin Anthony Kennedy, joining together for one rationale behind upholding the law. You had Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joining together for a different rationale to uphold the law.

And then you had the three dissenters, who tend to be on the liberal side of the bench, Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, saying the law was unconstitutional. So it really was a very interesting split. It was 3-3-3.

RAY SUAREZ: But when that happens, it doesn't matter why those two groups say they're going to uphold it; it becomes a 6-3 vote in favor of upholding, right?

MARCIA COYLE: It does, because the judgment was to uphold the law regardless of the rationale.

Making the case for voter fraud

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the Bush administration argued that it was not necessary to prove that voter fraud existed in the first place for Indiana to have a law that said we want to prevent fraud so we're requiring that you have this photo I.D. Did that question of whether this was a law in search of a crime figure into the decisions very much?

MARCIA COYLE: It did. At one point, Justice Stevens, who was the justice who announced the judgment of the court, he wrote that -- he acknowledged that there was no evidence that anyone in Indiana had ever been prosecuted for voter impersonation at the polling place in Indiana's entire history.

But he said that type of fraud had occurred elsewhere in the United States at various times in its history and it was a concern that it could reoccur. And if it reoccurred, it could make a difference in a close election.

Burden to voters under scrutiny

Marcia Coyle
The National Law Journal
Justice Stevens said that, when a court examines whether an election law violates the Constitution, it has to weigh the alleged injury to the right to vote against the interests that a state asserts justifying the law and whatever burden it imposes.

RAY SUAREZ: One issue that came up prominently in the original argument was whether it was easy for people of limited means, of limited mobility to get government-issue photo I.D. Was that very much in evidence in today's decisions?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, that is one of the key issues in the case, as well as in the decision.

Justice Stevens said that, when a court examines whether an election law violates the Constitution, it has to weigh the alleged injury to the right to vote against the interests that a state asserts justifying the law and whatever burden it imposes.

And he found that there just wasn't enough evidence in this particular case, in this record to show that the burden, the injury to the right to vote was substantial. He said there was no way to quantify, based on what was in this court record, how many people were unable to get a government-issued photo I.D., what kind of difficulties the poor or the disabled or elderly would face if they had to get the voter I.D. or didn't have it.

So, yes, he felt there just wasn't sufficient evidence. On the other hand, in the dissent, Justice Souter felt there was plenty of evidence. He felt that the record showed that at least 43,000 people in Indiana would not have a government-issued voter I.D.

And he felt also, based on what was in the record, there was an economic cost to getting this photo I.D. You have to get your birth certificate. That costs money. It would cost money to get transportation to go to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in order to get a government-issued I.D.

It would also cost money if you showed up at the polls without the I.D. The law would allow you to cast a provisional ballot, but you had to get to the county seat, the clerk's office and the county seat, within 10 days to either produce that government I.D. or sign an affidavit that you were too poor and couldn't afford one.

Setting a precedent for ID laws

Marcia Coyle
The National Law Journal
[The ruling] will encourage states to, if they are thinking about it, to go forward with similar legislation, similar requirements.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, this has been repeatedly called the most restrictive law of its kind in the country. By upholding it with this 6-3 vote, does this basically give cover to every voter I.D. law that exists in the rest of the country?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think two things are important here. One, I think it will encourage states to, if they are thinking about it, to go forward with similar legislation, similar requirements.

But the court did not entirely close the door here to challenges to these types of laws. Basically, it said the challenge here was what we call a facial attack on the statute. The challengers were saying this law is unconstitutional in any way that it's applied.

But the court said it may be that this law could be unconstitutional as applied to a particular voter. And that voter may be able to file a lawsuit and have the evidence that shows how the law does burden the right to vote in a way that violates the Constitution.

So there could be future challenges to these types of laws. But they're going to be harder to mount.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, before we go, Indiana has a primary day coming up. Does a ruling like this take effect immediately? Will Indiana be able to require voter I.D. next Tuesday?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, I believe it will.

RAY SUAREZ: Great. Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: You're welcome.