Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Voter ID Law Is Bad for Democracy (Update 7)

So did you hear the one about the nuns who were denied the right to vote?

While that sounds like the opening line to a bad joke, it is, unfortunately, what happened to a group of nuns during Indiana's May 6 primary. According to the Associated Press (as reported on

About 12 Indiana nuns were turned away Tuesday from a polling place by a fellow sister because they didn't have state or federal identification bearing a photograph.

Sister Julie McGuire said she was forced to turn away her fellow members of Saint Mary's Convent in South Bend, across the street from the University of Notre Dame, because they had been told earlier that they would need such an ID to vote.

The nuns, all in their 80s or 90s, didn't get one but came to the precinct anyway.

One came down this morning, and she was 98, and she said, 'I don't want to go do that,'" Sister McGuire said. Some showed up with outdated passports. None of them drives.

The convent will make "a very concerted effort" to get proper identification for the nuns in time for the general election. "We're going to take from now until November to get them out and get this done.

"You can't do this like school kids on a bus," she said. "I wish we could."

Late Tuesday, Secretary of State Todd Rokita was unapologetic.

"Indiana's Voter ID Law applies to everyone. From all accounts that we've heard, the sisters were aware of the photo ID requirements and chose not to follow them," he said in a statement released by his office.

Elsewhere across the pivotal state, voting appeared to run smoothly, despite the fears of some elections experts that the Supreme Court's recent refusal to strike down Indiana's controversial photo identification law could cause confusion at the polls.

Indiana's photo ID law is the strictest in the country. The Republican-led effort was designed to combat ballot fraud, said supporters, who also have acknowledged that no case involving someone impersonating a voter at the polls has ever been prosecuted in Indiana.

ACLU files lawsuit

The state's American Civil Liberties Union sued, calling the law a poll tax that disproportionately affected minorities and elderly voters, those most likely to lack such identification. On April 28, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the law did not violate the Constitution.

In a primary expected to draw record numbers, a voter hot line set up by the secretary of state's office mostly received calls concerning precinct locations, spokeswoman Bethany Derringer said.

But a group of voting rights advocates that established a separate hot line reported receiving several calls from would-be voters who were turned away at precincts because they lacked state or federal identification bearing a photograph.

One newly married woman said she was told she couldn't vote because her driver's license name didn't match the one on her voter registration record, said Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center Justice at New York University's law school, coordinator of the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hot line. Another woman said she was turned away from casting her first-ever ballot because she had only a college-issued ID card and an out-of-state driver's license, Perez said.

"These laws are confusing. People don't know how they're supposed to be applied," she said.

Not the right kind of ID

According to the New Voters Project, sponsored by Student Public Interest Groups, about a dozen college students at Notre Dame, Butler University and Indiana University said they were told at the polls they didn't have the right form of identification.

Angela Hiss, a 19-year-old sophomore at Notre Dame, presented her Notre Dame ID card and her Illinois driver's license. Poll workers did not inform her that she could have cast a provisional ballot, she told project staff monitoring her polling place.

For a similar story, see "Nuns, Students Blocked from Voting in Indiana -- Where's Congress?" by Art Levine.

These stories come out of one small portion of Indiana. How many other voters were turned away? How many of those without valid photo ID were given the chance to cast a provisional ballot? How many Hoosiers tried to get a photo ID but were unable to do so in time for the election? How many people were disenfranchised all in the name of preventing in person voter fraud that has never happened in Indiana?

I've already discussed this issue at length (see Voter ID Law Is Bad for Democracy, and Update 1, Update 2, Update 3, Update 4 , Update 5, and Update 6 to that post) and won't rehash those arguments here. I will, however, reiterate my previous sentiment that laws that have the potential to disenfranchise voters (whether 98-year-old nuns, newly married women, or first time voters) are not good for democracy, especially when the stated (though not real) purpose of those laws is to prevent a type of voter fraud that has never occurred in Indiana.

One other point that I'd like to make: I've criticized Indiana's Secretary of State Todd Rokita repeatedly on this issue. His apparent lack of concern over the inability of some Indiana citizens to vote, as expressed by his quotation in the above article, I find truly astounding. Yes, the nuns were aware of the law and yes they "chose" to ignore it. Of course, the Supreme Court only ruled on the issue 8 days before the primary; so how, exactly, was the 98-year-old nun who doesn't drive supposed to get her photo ID? How was the newly married woman supposed to get hers? For that matter, why should the 98-year old nun who lives in a convent even have a photo ID at all? It appears that the only reason is to vote. Are we really comfortable with telling these voters, "Sorry, but that's the law, and you don't get to vote; because you don't have a photo ID, you don't get to exercise your Constitutional right to vote"? I don't know about you, but it makes me very uncomfortable.

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