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Published: Monday, 5/5/2008

Solution without a problem

THE United States Supreme Court has handed Republicans an election-year gift. In a 6-3 decision, the court gave its blessing to a modern day version of the poll tax in a ruling that could make voting more difficult for some citizens, especially those likely to favor Democratic candidates.

Just in time for this week's Indiana primary, the high court upheld an Indiana law that requires voters to show a government-issued photo identification before voting. The statute permits voters who lack such identification to cast provisional ballots, but they must appear at their county courthouse within 10 days to show identification for those votes to be counted.

Dozens of states have voter ID laws but the Indiana measure is considered one of the strictest because of the hoops it requires voters to jump through who currently lack photo identification. To obtain one, courtesy of the state, Indiana residents must produce documents such as a birth certificate, passport, certificate of naturalization, or military ID.

No similar barriers existed before Republicans in state after state wielded their party's controlling power in legislatures to push through voter ID laws, including a less-restrictive version in Ohio. Previously, most citizens needed only to sign a poll book to vote, with their signatures checked against one on file. The system has worked for years without anything approaching a problem with in-person voter fraud.

But the GOP's concocted argument that voter ID requirements are necessary to deter the possibility of voter fraud found a sympathetic audience among the justices.

What makes this decision worse is that the controlling opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who typically could be counted on to see through bogus political arguments.

Justice Stevens swallowed the GOP mantra whole, insisting that the justifications for the law "should not be disregarded simply because partisan interest may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators."

As Justice David Souter, along with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer pointed out in their dissent, "Indiana has made no such justification" for the statute "and as to some aspects of the law, it hardly even tried." We, and many others, concur .

Voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem predicated on political calculations. The administrative obstacles thrown up will make it harder for thousands of elderly, poor, and minority voters to cast ballots and could even intimidate some from going to the polls. Otherwise qualified voters who don't have a driver's license are even less likely to be able to produce a birth certificate required to obtain a separate ID card like the one Indiana issues.

The scenario is precisely like voting laws enacted decades ago in the South to keep blacks from voting, the old poll tax. Yet the Supreme Court brushed aside any link between partisan politics and voter identification laws, saying state action to stop voter fraud mitigated associated political issues.

The main problem with that line of argument: Not one case of actual voting fraud was put in evidence in the case, just as voting fraud has not been proven to be a widespread problem in Ohio or anywhere in the nation. The court has created a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

The decision amounts to "a body blow to what America stands for - equal access to the polls," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who leads the Democrats' Senate election efforts.

We agree. Few American freedoms are more sacrosanct than the right to vote without "denial or abridgement" of that right. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has blithely given the back of its hand to that freedom.



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