This op-ed originally appeared in Constitution Daily.
Voter ID laws are back in the news. Curiously, the most recent action concerns one of the oldest cases.
Judge Richard Posner wrote the 2007 appellate opinion upholding Indiana's strict photo ID law -- the first legal one in the country -- against a challenge. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the 2008 opinion for the Supreme Court upholding that upholding. Both have recently publicly mused about the merits of arguments by the judges that disagreed. That sort of reflective appreciation for the opposing view is sufficiently unusual that it has provoked a flood of commentary.
And that flood of commentary has largely lost sight of two very important distinctions. First,
ID laws are not all the same.
Every state makes sure, when people come to the polls, that they are who they say they are. It's the details of how they do this that matter. Some states compare signatures. Many see whether they can match up Social Security digits, or ask for a document like a utility bill or paycheck, off a long list. Some have a shorter list of approved documents. Some ask for a government-issued photo ID card from those who have one, and demand a special affidavit from those who do not.
And some now require specific photo ID cards from all but the legally indigent, preventing eligible voters who do not have photo ID on Election Day from casting a valid ballot at the polls. (Most such states have more lax documentary requirements for voting absentee.) Even within this category, there is variety: some accept student IDs, for example, and some do not.