The fight over whether states can demand some sort of identification before allowing voters to cast ballots has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices agreed to hear argument on Arizona’s law requiring voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship before registering. In the heat of the final days of the U.S. presidential election the case is not drawing much attention. Any argument and decision in the case won’t come until long after Election Day. And the arguments advanced by both sides in the case may seem as dry as unbuttered toast to the average American. The battle probably appeals mainly to political activists or Supreme Court wonks. But an eventual Supreme Court decision will help shape the voting landscape of the future.
Republicans who have sponsored such laws say they are necessary to prevent widespread voter fraud. Democrats say Republicans have presented no evidence of widespread fraud, and the laws are only a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the vote of minorities, the elderly and the poor — those least likely to have a driver’s license and most likely to vote Democratic. The arithmetic on the modern Supreme Court favors voter ID laws. In 2008’s Crawford vs. Marion County, the justices reached a 6-3 judgment approved Indiana’s voter ID law, brushing aside Democratic challenges.
But the prevailing opinion was written by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, and only two other members of the court, conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined it. Stevens said Indiana has a legitimate interest in protecting the integrity of its elections, and protecting the public’s confidence in elections. Stevens dismissed concerns that majority Republicans in the Legislature were trying to suppress the Democratic vote — their motive didn’t matter.
“While the record contains no evidence that the fraud [the voter ID law] addresses — in-person voter impersonation at polling places — has actually occurred in Indiana,” Stevens conceded, “such fraud has occurred in other parts of the country, and Indiana’s own experience with voter fraud in a 2003 mayoral primary demonstrates a real risk that voter fraud could affect a close election’s outcome.”
Stevens said, “Because Indiana’s [photo ID] cards are free, the inconvenience of going to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, gathering required documents and posing for a photograph does not qualify as a substantial burden on most voters’ right to vote, or represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting.”
Three conservative court members, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, joined in the judgment but not in Stevens’ opinion. In a separate opinion, they said Indiana’s voter ID law should be upheld because its overall burden is minimal and justified. Three liberal justices dissented.