Voters' rights in peril

October 01, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

George W. Bush's domestic legacy will be a deeply conservative U.S. Supreme Court, one that has shown its impatience with efforts to redress lingering racial discrimination. It ruled against efforts in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle to keep schools racially balanced.

Let's hope the Roberts court is more progressive in its views toward voting. The Supreme Court is the last bulwark against an invidious effort to disenfranchise poorer voters, many of them black and brown, through highly restrictive voter ID laws. Such laws have been passed in states around the country, from Arizona to Indiana to Georgia.

The nation's highest court has agreed to hear an appeal of the Indiana law, and its ruling will likely be issued just in time for the 2008 presidential elections. The law - and similar ones in other states - should be struck down. By requiring voters to show a state-sponsored ID such as a driver's license, those laws create unfair obstacles for elderly and poor voters who are unlikely to own cars and, therefore, unlikely to drive.

Americans who are safely ensconced in the economic mainstream may find it hard to believe that there are law-abiding voters out there who don't have a driver's license. In writing the majority opinion upholding Indiana's law, Judge Richard Posner, who sits on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, certainly had that view.

"It is exceedingly difficult to maneuver in today's America without a photo ID. Try flying, or even entering a tall building such as the courthouse in which we sit," he wrote.

But there are still voters in small towns and rural hamlets who have never flown, never entered a federal courthouse and never rented a movie from Blockbuster. Yet they, too, have the right to vote.

It took generations of progress and several constitutional amendments before this democratic republic extended the vote to all American adults. But the universal franchise is now at the heart of our civic enterprise, and it's one of the values we hold up to other countries as a model. In this country, it shouldn't matter whether you've ever flown on a plane or driven a car if you want to vote.

Proponents of voter ID laws - who are usually Republicans - claim that they are essential for weeding out fraud at the ballot box. There's just one problem: There is virtually no evidence that fake voters show up at the polls. The actual problem is getting eligible voters to turn out, not having the polls overrun by illegal immigrants or other fraudulent voters.

So why are Republicans insisting on rigid voter ID laws? They want to block some elderly and poorer voters from the ballot box, because those groups are more likely to support Democrats than Republicans.

Even Judge Posner acknowledged the partisan divide. "No doubt most people who don't have photo ID are low on the economic ladder and thus, if they do vote, are more likely to vote for Democratic than Republican candidates," he wrote. Yet he still found that the law didn't violate any constitutional standards. Unbelievable.

The nation's highest court lost credibility when it entered the highly controversial 2000 presidential contest and installed Mr. Bush as president. Conservative jurists violated one of their bedrock principles - states' rights - to support the Republican candidate. That ruling left a pall over the court that has not disappeared, tainting its reputation for holding itself apart from partisan disputes.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the conservative majority should go out of their way to avoid any more rulings with such a dubious partisan cast. If they strike down the Indiana law, they'll not only help restore the credibility of the court but also preserve a fundamental constitutional principle: the universal franchise.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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