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High court takes voter-ID challenge

Justices to review state law in '08

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether the Indiana legislature violated the Constitution when it passed a law requiring Hoosiers to produce a picture ID before they vote.

The justices will hear the case next year as the 2008 presidential and congressional races unfold.

The Indiana Democratic Party contends the two-year-old law is unconstitutional. Its Republican backers said the law is a way to prevent voter fraud.

In 2005, the General Assembly voted along party lines to require Hoosier voters to produce a government-issued picture identification, with some exceptions for absentee ballots, the indigent and those with a religious objection to being photographed.

“The right to vote is of fundamental importance in our democracy,” William Groth, attorney for the state Democratic Party, said Tuesday after he learned the case would be decided by the nine justices. “Any significant burdens on that right must be justified by the state based on evidence, not by mere speculation or conjecture.”

Indiana’s law has operated in two primaries and a fall election.

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita said Tuesday that 75 percent of Hoosiers support the law and the Supreme Court’s decision hear the case “will only add to the confidence that Indiana voters have already been given by this common-sense, no-cost law that creates a level playing field for all voters.”

Two dozen states have similar laws, and the federal appeals courts have disagreed on whether they are constitutional.

Although about six states have had voter-identification requirements for years, most laws were passed in the past decade, prompted by fears that people who weren’t eligible to vote would try to cast ballots, said Jennifer Bowser, of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We have come to a time, ... where voters need more confidence in the election process,” Rokita said as the Indiana General Assembly was considering the legislation.

The law’s opponents argue that a voter-ID requirement addresses a non-existent problem and deters some people from voting. They say poor, elderly or minority voters are more likely to sit out Election Day if they have to produce some kind of identification. Poor and minority voters tend to vote Democratic.

A federal court didn’t buy that contention, in part because when the state Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to overturn the law, they did not name anyone who was rejected at the ballot box for lack of an ID.

Judge Richard Posner, writing for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, said that suggests “that the motivation for the suit is simply that the law may require the Democratic Party and the other organizational plaintiffs to work harder to get every last one of their supporters to the polls.”

Groth said the appeals court should have made the state prove that imposters have voted in Indiana and that the law would fix that. Instead, he said, Posner put the burden of proof on the opponents of the law.

Dan Parker, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said Democrats “don’t disagree that combating voter fraud is important, but this law, in its current form, does nothing to address that issue other than intentionally prevent certain Americans from exercising their legal right to vote in public elections.”

The Hoosier law, he said, “doesn’t address the only type of voter fraud that has ever been shown to exist: mail-in absentee voter fraud.”

The court did not accept Indiana’s request to delay consideration until after the 2008 elections. In a memo to the justices, Attorney General Steve Carter warned that a mid-2008 ruling on the case could “precipitate emergency, election-eve challenges” because a decision wouldn’t come before the end of February. But then, he said, 24 states and the District of Columbia will have held presidential primaries.

The Election Assistance Commission reported last year that the pervasiveness of fraud was debatable. The congressionally created commission paid $100,000 to two researchers to examine voter fraud and write the report. Before it was issued, according to a New York Times review of the original research, the report was changed to downplay the findings that evidence of voter fraud was negligible.

sylviasmith@jg.net

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