An American citizen's right to vote is enshrined in the Constitution, but there have been efforts to thwart that right. Until the Supreme Court declared poll taxes and literacy tests unconstitutional, they once prevented many people from voting, especially those who were poor or minority citizens.
Today the justices heard arguments about a state law that requires individuals to present a specific type of identification to be able to vote. VOA's Andrew Baroch reports, the case has nationwide repercussions, since the high court is expected to rule several months before the 2008 U.S. Presidential election.
At issue is a law enacted three years ago by the Indiana legislature that many opponents consider restricts voters' rights. Under the law, a voter has to present a government-issued photo identification card at a polling place (such as a driver's license or a passport) to be eligible to cast a ballot. Without it, the voter is given a provisional ballot, which will not be counted unless he or she returns with acceptable proof of identity. Other states' polling places accept documents of identification like utility bills or voters' sworn affidavits. But nearly 30 state legislatures are considering statutes like Indiana's, so the Court's ruling on this case will have a nationwide impact.
John Greenbaum, director of the non-partisan Voting Rights Project, believes the justices should strike down the law that, in his view, violates a constitutional right to vote the high court established in the 1960s. "This case," he says, "is going to have serious ramifications as to what extent state and local governments have the ability to infringe on that right."
There is already evidence the Indiana law has violated voters' rights, according to Deborah Goldberg. The acting director of the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law cites a recent incident in a municipal election. "There were 32 provisional ballots that were not counted, because the voters who cast those ballots did not make it on a second trip to an election agency to provide the documentation that's necessary to make that ballot count."
Goldberg says the majority of voters affected (those whose votes did not count) were poor, elderly, or minorities, who often do not have drivers' licenses or passports. "Imagine this scene on a much broader scale," she says.
"National studies show that from 10 to 12 percent of the American public do not have a driver's license and only a quarter have a passport," Goldberg points out. "If the Indiana law were upheld [by the high court] and applied nationally, we would potentially disenfranchise about 21 million people. That is certainly enough to swing an election."
Goldberg and other opponents of the Indiana law argue that the Republican Party is promoting this law in legislatures nationwide in order to exclude minority and poor voters who historically support Democratic Party candidates.
But advocates of the Indiana law say photo ID cards are necessary to prevent people who are not entitled to vote from affecting an election. "It lets people know that elections are being watched and operated in a reasonable fashion," says Bradley Smith, who served on the Federal Election Commission under two presidents, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush.
Smith says voter IDs are only one of a number of factors that could deter voters. "We know that if you reduce the number of voting machines by one, it burdens the right to vote," he says, "and that a little bit longer line will make some person decide, 'What the hell…' and go home."
"In other words," says Smith, "there are many things that arguably make it hard to vote and they are not all constitutional violations."
Bradley Smith says not enough studies have been done on the impact of the Indiana voter ID law on turnout to warrant a high court decision to strike it down.
Deborah Goldberg counters that the justices should hold the right to vote as a personal right, not a matter of how many people are turned away from a polling place. "One person turned away as a result of the Indiana law is too many," she says.
The high court ruling is expected in June.