About a dozen nuns in their 80s and 90s from the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in South Bend, Ind., arrived at their polling place in May only to be told that they could not cast ballots in that state’s primary election. Why? They did not have acceptable photo identification. Indiana now has the strictest of all voter identification laws, a matter of concern to civil rights advocates who believe that laws like Indiana’s are excluding otherwise eligible voters from exercising one of the most basic rights of U.S. citizens.
Laws of this kind primarily affect low-income people, the elderly, people with disabilities and racial minorities. Under the Indiana statute, voters must present at the polls a government-issued document with a photo, like a driver license or passport—documents that many of the people in these categories can obtain only with difficulty or not at all. Although Indiana’s Department of Motor Vehicles provides a free photo I.D. card for nondrivers, one needs an original birth certificate to obtain it, and this is in itself a significant hurdle for some.
The stated purpose of the Indiana statute is to prevent people from casting a ballot in another’s name or under an assumed name. But there has been virtually no evidence of this type of fraud in Indiana in recent decades. Neverthe-less, in the case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Supreme Court in late April upheld the Indiana law’s requirement of a government-issued photo I.D. as a condition for voting. That decision opens the way for other states to adopt equally restrictive laws. Over a dozen are considering similar measures that, if not calling for a photo I.D., would require proof of citizenship. Missouri was on the verge of passing an amendment to its state constitution to this effect, but the bill failed to pass in mid-May.
Such requirements are clearly aimed at illegal immigrants. These people, however, are among those least likely to attempt to vote. With current anti-immigrant sentiment stronger than ever, and as states and localities pass ever more stringent laws affecting employers and landlords who rent out rooms and apartments, those without papers prefer to remain in the shadows rather than risk arrest, incarceration and deportation by attempting to vote.
Not all the Supreme Court justices agreed with the decision upholding the Indiana law. As Justice David Souter put it in his dissenting opinion, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also signed, “The interest in combating voter fraud has too often served as a cover for unnecessarily restrictive electoral rules.” The executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Michael Waldman, has said that laws like Indiana’s “invariably are crafted to impact the poor, minorities, the elderly and others who simply lack the required photo I.D.”
Also disturbing are efforts to restrict voter registration drives. On behalf of the League of Women Voters in Florida, the Brennan Center filed a federal lawsuit over Florida’s restrictions on voter registration groups.
Even more troubling is a directive by the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, James B. Peake, on May 5 banning nonpartisan voter registration drives at federally financed nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and shelters for homeless veterans. The department contends that such drives are disruptive to patient care, and also argues that the drives violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal workers from taking part in partisan political activities. But as Connecticut’s secretary of state, Susan Bysiewicz, pointed out, registering people to vote is not a partisan activity. Congress is considering bills that would require the V.A. to repeal the ban, but they must be signed into law before Oct. 1 if they are to have any effect on the 2008 election.
At the very least, restrictive voting and registration laws are sure to cause confusion at the polls and deter many from even attempting to cast a ballot. Yet surely one goal of any election regulation in the United States should be to encourage as many eligible voters as possible to go to their local polling stations in one of the nation’s most important participatory processes.
Electronic voting poses another problem, because it is susceptible to malfunctioning and fraudulent activity. In early July, the elections supervisor of Palm Beach County in Florida apologized because machines there failed to count 14 percent of the votes in a city commission election. Electronic voting also makes possible vote-stealing. The danger of voter fraud could be reduced by paper trails for electronic voting, backed by audits to uncover errors.
After two presidential elections that were tainted with allegations of voter fraud, the upcoming November presidential election has special significance. Given the pre-eminence of the United States in global affairs, not only U.S. citizens, but people around the world are waiting to see how fairly the 2008 presidential election will be conducted.