ID-Less in Indiana

05/11/2008 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 2005, Indiana passed a law requiring all citizens to show a photo ID before being allowed to vote. The law was enacted on a strict party line; every Republican in the state legislature voted in favor, and every Democrat voted against. The law was sharply criticized for responding to a non-existent problem -- there is not a single example in Indiana history of in-person voter impersonation -- and for aiming to suppress poor and minority voter turnout. Poor and minority (i.e. Democratic) voters, not surprisingly, are much less likely to have valid photo IDs than wealthy and white (i.e. Republican) voters.

Despite these problems, the Supreme Court recently held that the law is constitutional. The Court downplayed the burden imposed by the law on people lacking IDs, asserting that "the inconvenience of making a trip to the DMV, gathering the required documents, and posing for a photograph surely does not qualify as a substantial burden on the right to vote." The Court added that it simply "d[id] not know the magnitude of the impact [the law] will have on indigent voters in Indiana."

Last week, Indiana held its first statewide election since the voter ID law was enacted: the Democratic Party presidential primary. And based on the primary's results, it is possible to conclude, at least preliminarily, that the "magnitude of the [law's] impact" is substantial -- and thus that the Supreme Court was wrong to uphold it.

Consider Marion and Lake Counties. They are Indiana's two most populous counties (home, respectively, to Indianapolis and Gary) and the stronghold of the state's Democratic Party. They are also substantially poorer and blacker than the rest of the state. In 2004, Marion County accounted for 16.7% of all the votes cast in Indiana for Sen. John Kerry, and Lake County accounted for 11.8%. What did these numbers look like in the 2008 Democratic primary? Surely the counties' poor and minority voters turned out in higher proportions to support Sen. Barack Obama?

Actually, no. Marion County accounted for just 14.9% of the votes cast in the primary (a decline of 11 percent). And Lake County, despite Gary Mayor Rudy Clay's boasts of unprecedented turnout, accounted for just 10.2% of the votes (a decline of almost 14 percent). In other words, relative turnout in Indiana's poorest and blackest counties declined significantly between 2004 and 2008 -- even though the most appealing black politician in memory was on the 2008 ballot.

It is not possible, of course, to attribute all the blame for the relative turnout decline on the new voter ID law. Sen. Hillary Clinton zealously rallied her supporters, who were concentrated outside Indiana's big cities. Rush Limbaugh's Operation Chaos, which called for Republicans to cross over and vote for Sen. Clinton, may have been responsible for some of the turnout boost in Indiana's suburban and rural counties. And 2004-2008 comparisons are tricky since the 2004 statistics are from the general election while the 2008 numbers are from a primary.

Still, it seems likely that a good number of Marion and Lake County voters who otherwise would have voted for Sen. Obama stayed home because they lacked photo IDs. It is difficult to imagine why else relative turnout in these counties would have declined in an election cycle that has been characterized by spikes of interest in Democratic strongholds. (Relative turnout in Philadelphia, for example, was up in 2008 compared to 2004.) It is thus plausible that Sen. Clinton owes her razor-thin victory in the Indiana primary to the state's new voter ID law (as well as to the Supreme Court, which upheld it). A law intended to benefit Republicans may instead have won the election for the Democrat running the more Republican-style campaign.