A Judge Sees the Light on ‘Voter Fraud’ Laws

Years after he decided to uphold a strict voter ID law, a federal appellate judge says he got it all wrong. That’s great, writes Jamelle Bouie, but isn’t the damage already done?

10.22.13 5:30 PM ET

A federal judge says he regrets a six-year-old decision on voter ID laws—and he absolutely should.

In 2007, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Indiana law that required all voters to show photo identification before voting. The plaintiffs charged that the law burdened low-income Indianans and others who lacked access to IDs. But writing for the majority—which ruled for the defendants—Judge Richard Posner dismissed (PDF) this concern. “No doubt there are at least a few such people in Indiana,” Posner wrote, “but the inability of the sponsors of this litigation to find any such person to join as a plaintiff suggests that the motivation for the suit is simply that the law may require the Democratic Party…to work harder to get every last one of their supporters to the polls.”

Now, however, Posner has had a change of heart. Here he is, as stated in a video interview with HuffPost Live:

Asked whether the court had gotten its ruling wrong, Judge Posner responded: “Yes. Absolutely.” Back in 2007, he said, “there hadn’t been that much activity in the way of voter identification,” and “we weren’t really given strong indications that requiring additional voter identification would actually disenfranchise people entitled to vote.” The member of the three-judge panel who dissented from the majority decision, Terence T. Evans, “was right,” Judge Posner said.

This is a remarkable shift, and one that fits with the evidence. Despite the near nonexistence of in-person voter fraud—the chief rationale for voter identification laws—conservative activists have pushed them as key tools in the fight to protect “voter integrity.” It’s a vague term, and that’s the point; it can be used to justify any measure under the sun, from narrow identification requirements—a recently passed Texas law accepts gun licenses but rejects student IDs—to dubious new “reforms.” North Carolina Republicans, for instance, have used “voter integrity” to justify fewer early voting hours, fewer precincts near college campuses, and third-party poll observers who are empowered to challenge credentials for anyone who tries to vote.

It’s no surprise, then, that these laws are seen as explicit attempts at voter suppression, aimed at Democratic constituencies like African Americans, students, and low-income workers. It’s for this reason that the Texas law—which took effect yesterday—has been challenged by the Justice Department for discriminating against minority voters. In addition to strict identification requirements, the law cuts early voting by one week, eliminates same-day registration, prevents counties from extending hours in the event of long lines, dismantles three public financing programs, and weakens disclosure requirements for outside groups. The law provides for free IDs, but vanishingly few voters have taken advantage of them.

It’s hard to see how these policies stop fraud or protect “voter integrity,” but it’s easy to see how they advantage Republican candidates and keep Democratic voters from the polls. For now, however—thanks largely to the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act—they’re here to stay.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly credited The New York Times for Judge Posner's quote. It has since been updated to credit HuffPost Live.