Voter ID Laws: A “Solution” in Search of a Problem

I’m just beginning to read through the opinions in today’s decision upholding the facial validity of Indiana’s voter-ID law. Along with many others, I have argued that the law is unconstitutional because it imposes burdens on voting without advancing any governmental interest. Thus, to my mind, the most noteworthy paragraph in Justice Stevens’ lead opinion is the one in which he tries to adduce evidence of an actual problem that this law would address:

The only kind of voter fraud that SEA 483 addresses is in-person voter impersonation at polling places. The record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history. Moreover, petitioners argue that provisions of the Indiana Criminal Code punishing such conduct as a felony provide adequate protection against the risk that such conduct will occur in the future. It remains true, however, that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this nation’s history by respected historians and journalists, that occasional examples have surfaced in recent years, and that Indiana’s own experience with fraudulent voting in the 2003 Democratic primary for East Chicago Mayor—though perpetrated using absentee ballots and not in-person fraud—demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.

The third piece of evidence (Indiana’s own experience with fraudulent voting in the 2003 Democratic primary for East Chicago Mayor) is not really on point, as Justice Stevens more or less acknowledges, because it was “perpetrated using absentee ballots and not in-person fraud,” and thus such a fraud scenario would be unaffected by the Indiana law. So what we are left with is (i) “flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country [that] have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists” and (ii) “occasional examples [of such fraud that] have surfaced in recent years.”

For the first proposition, what does the opinion cite? Only this: an anecdote about in-person voter impersonation allegedly orchestrated by Boss Tweed in 1868.  And for the second—occasional “recent” examples? Justice Stevens tips his hat to the Brennan Center’s showing that “much of” the evidence of such fraud “was actually absentee ballot fraud or voter registration fraud.”  Nevertheless, he states that “there remain scattered instances of in-person voter fraud.” The evidence for this? That in the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, a partial investigation confirmed that one voter committed in-person voting fraud.

So we have an anecdote about Boss Tweed and a single modern voter engaged in the sort of fraud at issue here. If that’s the best case that can be made in favor of the law …

[UPDATE:  Much more—characteristically excellent—analysis from Rick Hasen here . On the issue I discuss above, and a terrific summary of the holding, Rick writes:

In a nutshell, the approach [of the governing plurality opinion] boils down to this: under the balancing approach of earlier cases (which the opinion says comes from cases such as Anderson and Burdick ), a state needs to come forward with merely plausible non-discriminatory interests to justify an election law. The evidence need not be strong. Indeed, though Justice Stevens says that there is evidence of fraud to justify a voter identification requirement, the actual evidence he cites in the footnotes is incredibly thin—either reaching back to 1868 (footnote 11) or a single case of impersonation voter fraud found in a recent gubernatorial election in Washington state (fn. 12). Moreover, Justice Stevens says an interest in preserving voter confidence can justify such laws as well, ignoring undisputed evidence such laws are not at all likely to instill voter confidence (and could in fact do the opposite). Nor does it matter if the motivation in passing the law is completely partisan. The law is to be upheld unless “such considerations had provided the only justification for a photo identification requirement.” So those with partisan motive need only find a nonpartisan pretext for such laws. Once the state has posited its neutral reasons for such a law, the law is to be upheld if it doesn’t impose serious burdens on most voters. For those voters who do face serious burdens, they must bring an “as applied” challenge where they present specific evidence applied to them as to why the law is onerous. This channelling of election law cases into as applied challenges—part of a recent trend of the Court —is going to make it tough for a lot of plaintiffs who are burdened, and is in sharp contrast with the Court’s approach in earlier cases, such as the Harper case striking down the poll tax for everyone , not just poor voters. The evidence in as-applied challenges must be specific and tested in litigation; as Justice Stevens says responding to Justice Souter’s dissent: “Supposition based on extensive Internet research is not an adequate substitute for admissible evidence subject to cross-examination in constitutional adjudication.”

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I am disappointed by how cursory that [plurality] opinion was in its review of the state’s interest in light of the highly partisan atmosphere of election administration, and I fear that, despite the Stevens-Kennedy-Roberts’ opinion’s best intentions, this opinion will be read as a green light for the enactment of more partisan election laws in an attempt to skew outcomes in close elections. It is a real disappointment from that perspective.

( Read more from Convictions contributors about the Supreme Court’s voter ID decision.)