Monday, January 14, 2008

Distance as an "excessive burden" in the voter ID case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 9 about Indiana's voter identification scheme, giving rise to the opportunity to note, however briefly, the issue of physical distance. Here's how it came up: Indiana's voter ID scheme permits those without identification to cast provisional ballots. Such a voter's ballot is counted, however, only if the voter travels to the county clerk's office within the next ten days to show the required identification or to sign a sworn statement that he cannot afford to obtain such an identification. The plaintiffs argue that this requirement imposes an unnecessary burden, one not required of voters in other states that require voter identification.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who grew up in Indiana, suggested during oral argument that the burden was not excessive because "County seats aren't very far for people in Indiana." Given the state's division into 92 counties, the largest with a land area of 657 square miles, it is possible to identify scenarios that would have rural-dwelling residents traveling 50 miles or more, some of it on secondary roads, to reach a county seat. That's a lot farther than they would have to travel to reach their polling place. On the other hand, it isn't as far as many residents in California, with 58 counties dividing a much greater land area, would have to travel to reach their county seat.

Makes one wonder what distance would be considered "excessive" in the eyes of our urban-dwelling Supreme Court Justices. For we have seen, in the context of assessing so-called "undue burdens" on the right to abortion, how unsympathetic the Court has been regarding distances that women must travel in order to reach abortion services. We have also seen the Court's resistance, in that context, to engaging the hard factual realities of spatial isolation and the hardships it creates.

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