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Carded at polls: No photo ID, no vote

There's the poor, 32-year-old mother of seven who says it would cost her at least $50 to vote in person. There's also the 92-year-old woman who's voted for decades in the same polling place, but now can't vote there because she let her driver's license expire when her eyesight began to fail.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There's the poor, 32-year-old mother of seven who says it would cost her at least $50 to vote in person. There's also the 92-year-old woman who's voted for decades in the same polling place, but now can't vote there because she let her driver's license expire when her eyesight began to fail.

These folks live in Indiana, home of the country's most restrictive photo-identification voter law. The U.S. Supreme Court is now scrutinizing whether that statute violates the first and 14th amendments, in the most contentious legal battle over voting since the high court issued a bitterly divided decision eight years ago that stopped Florida's recount and handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

If the law is upheld, voting rights advocates fear it will encourage conservative lawmakers across the country to enact equally restrictive measures. The high court's decision is expected in the summer - leaving time to impact November's general election.

Opponents, most of them Democrats, say requiring photo ID at the polls disproportionately affects the poor, the elderly and minorities - the most likely to lack photo identification.

But supporters, most of them Republicans, say such requirements are necessary to prevent voter fraud.

In states that narrowly lost fights that would force voters to produce this kind of identification, efforts are already underway to resurrect those more restrictive laws - in anticipation of a favorable ruling from the high court.

In Kansas, for example, GOP legislators announced Jan. 11 that passing such a law was a top priority for its 2008 session. The announcement came two days after oral arguments in the Indiana case.

"It is important that we protect the integrity of this next election," said Republican House leader Melvin Neufeld. Last year, a bill requiring photo ID and proof of U.S. citizenship was defeated in that chamber by a two-vote margin. It previously passed in the state Senate.

In Wisconsin, three similar laws have been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, most recently last year. State Republicans have vowed to renew their fight in time for the presidential election.

Since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 - a measure designed to avoid a repeat election disaster - seven states have passed photo ID laws. Six became mired in bitter legal battles: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.

Appellate courts have upheld ID laws in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan. Court rulings are pending in Indiana and Ohio. Missouri's regulation was struck down by that state's top court.

In the seventh state, Florida, voters may present signature-bearing ID if they don't possess photo identification.

No state goes as far as Indiana's 2005 regulations, which stipulate that every voter must present an ID issued by the state or the federal government. The document must contain:

  • The voter's photograph.
  • The voter's name (which has to exactly match the voter registration record).
  • A current expiration date.

In Jan. 9 oral arguments, several members of the Supreme Court appeared reluctant to overturn the Indiana law.

"You want us to invalidate a statute on the ground that it's a minor inconvenience to a small percentage of voters?" asked Justice Anthony Kennedy, traditionally the swing vote between the court's conservative and liberal members.

This worries voters' rights groups. "If it's upheld, we're certainly concerned that these same issues will resurface" in other states, said Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

One state where it can't resurface, unless the governor declares an emergency legislative session, is Texas.

Last year, an ugly fight over photo ID raged throughout the legislative session, complete with expletive-filled shouting matches and an ailing Democrat who promised to cast a dissenting vote while lying in a hospital gurney outside the Senate chambers. The measure died after Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst declined to force it to a vote.

The biannual legislature doesn't reconvene until next January.

The Bush administration has endorsed the measure before the Supreme Court, saying it is necessary to prevent fraud - specifically, to prevent voters from impersonating someone else at the polls, according to an amicus brief filed by the U.S. Justice Department.

Yet nonpartisan organizations including the Brennan Center, which studies voter issues, know of no one in the country who has been prosecuted for such a crime. The federal government does not keep such statistics.

"There are tens of millions of people in this country who don't have this type of identification. It's hard for middle-class people to understand that," said Michael Waldman, the center's executive director. The group filed a friend-of-the-court brief, along with the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and the NAACP, against Indiana's Marion County Election Board and Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who serves on two advisory boards to the bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Election officials in Ohio, home to prolonged battles over electronic voting machines, also filed an amicus brief supporting opponents of the Indiana law, saying it created a hardship for voters.

"Instead of creating barriers to voting, people should be asking how to make it easier for people to vote who have the right to vote," said Waldman. "Not everyone has a car. And if you don't have a car, you don't have a driver's license."

In New York City, for example, where subways and buses abound, only 45 percent of residents have photo IDs that would comply with the Indiana law, said Waldman, citing local surveys.

Rokita said the law is intended to encourage "faith in the election process, and in the integrity of it. Identify theft is the fastest-growing problem in America."

He acknowledges there have been no prosecutions for impersonating a voter. "But we still have a right to protect ourselves against the possibility of voter fraud," he said.

Civil rights activists say such protection is a form of discrimination.

The Indiana law "will effectively fence out of the electorate significant numbers of African-Americans," says a brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It also "will have a particularly burdensome impact in the places where impoverished African-Americans are concentrated."

In the other states with photo-ID laws, voters can present other forms of ID - such as a Social Security card, a utility bill or a student ID bearing a photograph- or they can sign an affidavit affirming their identity.

But Indiana voters lacking photo identification must fill out a so-called "provisional ballot." It is not counted until the person reappears within 10 days (at the voter's county seat, not where they voted), bringing proper ID or affirming their identity by signing an affidavit. However, such ID is not required when registering to vote.

"Voter ID laws ostensibly deal with voter impersonation," said Daniel P. Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University who last year helped prepare a report on the subject for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "But that effectively never happens. If you're gonna cheat, the easiest way is to do so through mail-in ballots. You'd have to be a fool to go to the polls and pretend to be someone else. What would you gain?"

Voters who use mail-in ballots are not required to show photo ID.

This particularly irks 92-year-old Mary Wayne Montgomery Eble, who lives on a family farm outside tiny Rockport, Ind., nestled on the Ohio River. She does not want to vote by mail; she wants to vote in person, as she has for decades. She considers it her civic duty; her mother was a suffragette.

But Eble cannot do so in this election. She let her driver's license lapse because she could no longer see well enough to drive. To get a state photo ID card, which would allow her to vote, she would have to produce a certified copy of her birth certificate.

Eble was born at home; she doesn't know if she has a birth certificate.

The bureaucracy she would have to navigate is intimidating to an elderly woman in a rural enclave who must rely on her grandchildren for travel.

"I'm 92 years old," she said. "I'm on oxygen, this weather is killing me. I just don't have the strength to talk about this any more."

The cost of a birth certificate stands in the way of stay-at-home mom Kim Tillman. She moved to Marion County in central Indiana last year with her husband and their seven children.

She has an expired Michigan driver's license, but that won't suffice at the Indiana polls. To get one in her new home state, she needs a certified copy of her birth certificate, which costs between $50 and $60. For a family that scrapes by with help from public assistance, that's a lot of money.

"What matters is the burden it places on the right to vote," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center. "It's a two-tier voting system that makes it easier for better-off citizens to vote. And it's a very circuitous route for poor and elderly citizens to get past the hurdles, and to have their vote counted. People don't want to swear an affidavit saying they're indigent."