Making it hard to vote

Voting is good, right? The more people who vote, the better for our democracy. So why, then, are some politicians passing laws making it more difficult to vote? And why did the U.S. Supreme Court last week uphold the strictest of those laws, Indiana’s voter-identification requirement?

The first question is easy to answer. For the past several years, Republican activists and lawmakers have been vigorously seeking to pass laws regulating the voting process in a way that makes it more difficult for members of some groups—such as the poor, the elderly, racial minorities and students—to vote, figuring (correctly) that most of them are Democrats.

Indiana’s law, for example, requires voters to present an unexpired government-issued photo ID at the polls. Reliable studies have shown, however, that 10 percent to 12 percent of otherwise eligible Americans do not have such ID cards, and the law disallows other methods of identification such as veterans', student and work ID cards and utility bills. To get acceptable ID, many people would be forced to pay fees for required documents, such as birth certificates. This is certain to dissuade a certain number of voters, likely Democrats, from voting.

The reason given for the law was to prevent voter fraud. But, nationally, only 24 people were convicted of voting illegally between 2002 and 2005. This is not a level of harm that warrants making it harder for people to vote.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 verdict in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board acknowledges the burden Indiana’s law places on voters, particularly elderly and low-income persons, but nonetheless upholds the state’s right to follow its own path, no matter how onerous.

Lest this be thought a principled states-rights position, remember that in 2000 this same court upheld, in Bush v. Gore, the claim of a single individual, George W. Bush, that his equal-protection rights were being denied by a state election system. That time, the court told the state just what to do.

It’s now up to state legislatures to reject the kind of laws already passed in Indiana and other states and work to make it as easy as possible to vote.