A voting setback

Our view: Voter ID laws needlessly limit democracy

April 30, 2008

By upholding Indiana's voter identification law, the U.S. Supreme Court has virtually ignored the nation's ignominious history of disenfranchising certain groups and sanctioned an overly restrictive solution in search of a problem. While the court's 6-3 ruling is not expected to have a major effect on the coming presidential election, it is likely to encourage more states to follow Indiana's lead, guaranteeing that more Americans could be denied one of the most basic rights in a democracy. Maryland should stick to its convictions and continue rejecting stricter voter ID requirements.

The Indiana law requires voters who show up at the polls to present a photo identification that, for all intents and purposes, can be satisfied only by a driver's license or a U.S. passport. State officials rationalized the law as a way to combat voter fraud, modernize election procedures and deal with an administrative problem of people who had either died or moved away continuing to show up on voter rolls. But challengers of the law rightly pointed to the deterrent effect it can have on the elderly and poor people who don't drive and for whom having to get a government-issued photo ID could be a burden. The requirement also doesn't apply when someone registers to vote or casts an absentee ballot - instances where detecting or deterring fraud should be of more paramount concern.

In his disappointing opinion for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens found insufficient evidence that the law imposed the kinds of burdens that would justify more than low-level scrutiny. He left open the possibility for another challenge that would document real problems with ID laws. But there's no mistaking the trouble with this ruling - it gives a green light to those who want to impose contemporary versions of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Rooting out voter fraud may be a legitimate concern, but ID laws such as Indiana's have taken on a distinctly partisan cast - generally favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats - and seem to be more about limiting the right to vote. In a nation where voter participation is pretty pitiful, states such as Maryland that have successfully resisted stricter voting requirements come closer to the democratic ideal.

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