Court questions voter-ID critics

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The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday questioned the need to strike down Indiana’s voter-ID law — the strictest in the country and, if upheld, a likely watershed for other states to require photo identification at the ballot box.

“You want us to invalidate a statute on the ground that it’s a minor inconvenience to a small percentage of voters?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said during oral arguments.

The Indiana Democratic Party and civil rights groups challenged the law as an unconstitutional assault on voting rights. They characterize the photo-ID requirement as a Republican scheme to disenfranchise minorities, the poor and elderly, who are most likely to lack a driver’s license and who also tend to vote Democratic.

Republicans say the law — the only one in the country to require a birth certificate to get a state-issued ID needed to vote — guards against voter fraud.

Proponents say it helps thwart voting by people from out of state, felons and illegal aliens, as well as safeguards voting rolls that are rarely purged of duplicate entries and dead voters.

The White House supports the law, which was passed by Indiana’s Republican-led General Assembly and signed by Gov.Mitch Daniels, a Republican.

As many as 20 states are lined up to adopt similar photo-ID laws for voting if Indiana’s survives the Supreme Court test. A decision is expected in June, in time for the presidential election in November.

A handful of states require some identification to vote, but only Georgia and Indiana have photo-ID mandates that do not allow the substitution of a signed affidavit or other documents, and only Indiana has the birth-certificate standard.

Paul M. Smith, attorney for the challengers, told the court that the law potentially affected 400,000 Indiana voters, but the justices were skeptical that so many would lack proper documentation.

“Those Indiana voters who lack the identification now required by the new photo-ID law must overcome substantial practical and financial burdens before they can continue to exercise their constitutional right,” Mr. Smith said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. later challenged Mr. Smith’s argument that there was scant evidence of the type of fraud the law purports to fight.

“You said it serves no purpose. What if we determine that it does serve a purpose in preventing fraud?” Justice Roberts said. “How are we supposed to weigh that against your asserted burden on the right to vote?”

Mr. Smith replied: “Well, you have to make some judgment about the incremental, additional benefit above what’s already been in place for decades, and it worked extremely effectively. … It seems to me you have to say: Is there any real benefit here compared to these burdens?”

Justice Antonin Scalia, who had earlier posed sharp questions for Mr. Smith, joined the exchange.

“Well, if you want to talk about increments, why shouldn’t we also ask whether our judgment does more harm than good, whether the remedy for the inconvenience to a small number of people is to wash away the whole statute, which in most of its applications is perfectly OK?” he said.

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