A 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld a 2005 Indiana law requiring all voters casting an in-person ballot to show a government-issued photo identification in order to vote, Crawford v. the Marion County Election Board stands as one of the landmark voting cases in American history.

The statute (SEA 483) requires that a person voting in an Indiana primary or general election must present a state-approved photo ID at the polling place. It does not apply to mail-in absentee ballots or those living in a state-licensed facility. A voter who cannot present photo identification at the polling location on Election Day must present a photo ID to the county clerk’s office within 10 days of voting.

After the bill’s passage, the Indiana Democratic Party and the Marion County Democratic Central Committee filed suit in federal district court. The plaintiffs, represented by Indiana labor lawyer Bill Groth, argued that the law substantially burdened citizens’ right to vote as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They also argued that lawmakers passed the statute to harm Democrats’ electoral prospects, as a photo ID requirement would disproportionately target poor and minority voters, who consistently voted Democratic. Additionally, plaintiffs disputed the existence of voter fraud in Indiana, which the law ostensibly aimed to suppress. The State of Indiana argued that it had an interest in protecting the integrity of Indiana elections, especially since the state’s voter rolls included many people who were no longer eligible voters.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the law. During oral arguments, the defendant admitted that no person in Indiana’s history had been charged with voter fraud. Judge Richard Posner wrote the opinion for the court, in which he argued that most people have the required documents, so the law did not present an undue burden on voters. (Posner later admitted in his memoir, Reflections on Judging (2013), that he regretted the decision and had come to see voter ID laws as forms of voter suppression) Judge Terence Thomas Evans dismissed the worries over voter fraud as a “fig leaf of responsibility” and accused the state of attempting to fix an illusory problem.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in April 2008, with John Paul Stevens authoring the opinion. Stevens concluded that Indiana had a reasonable interest in passing the law to protect elections. He pointed to the unusual size of registration rolls in some counties as one justification for the statute. Stevens, like Posner, concluded that the process of securing a photo ID did not represent a more significant burden than the usual obstacles for eligible voters. Even for those few whom the law would burden more than usual, their plight did not justify the relief sought. The plaintiffs provided insufficient evidence that the law would burden many voters. Furthermore, Stevens was unconvinced that Republican support for the law represented grounds for overturning the statute, for “if a nondiscriminatory law is supported by valid neutral justifications, those justifications should not be disregarded simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia went further than Stevens, arguing that a “generally applicable law” that burdens some voters is perfectly legal and in fact unavoidable.

In a dissenting opinion. Justice Steven Breyer argued that the Indiana law did not comply with recommendations from the report of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Federal Election Reform. The report recommended photo ID laws but required that those IDs “be easily available and issued free of charge.” Bryer wrote that a “poor, elderly, or disabled” driver would not have an easy time getting to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Justice David Souter also authored a dissenting opinion, in which he questioned whether the magnitude of the fraud problem justified the imposition of extra burdens on Indiana voters.

The response from state and national Democrats was swift and condemnatory. Even so, voter turnout in the 2008 general election increased in Indiana from the previous presidential election, with Democratic candidate Barack Obama carrying the state, but it was unclear what caused the increase.

Voter ID laws are now common across the United States.

Revised June 2021

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