By: Emma Merrill

Last year, a group of students at Purdue University in Indiana faced uncertainty about whether they could exercise their franchise rights in local elections. The controversy revolved around Indiana’s strict voter identification law. Julie Roush, a Republican elected as Tippecanoe County clerk in 2018, publicly questioned whether Purdue University’s school ID complied with Indiana’s infamous voter identification law. Roush faced swift public backlash on social media, and Purdue placated Roush’s concerns by adding expiration dates to its student IDs to comply with Indiana state law. Still, incoming Purdue sophomores (who were not issued new IDs last year) may be prevented from using their freshman IDs to vote in fall 2020 elections.

In 2005, the Indiana General Assembly passed one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country, Senate Enrolled Act. No. 483, mandating that registered Indiana voters bring a photo ID to the polls to be permitted to vote. Voters could present an Indiana driver’s license, a state ID card, a U.S. passport, or a military-issued photo ID.

After the law passed, Indiana’s Democratic Party and a collection of nonprofit organizations and public officials challenged the photo ID requirement under Article 2, Sections 1 and 2 of Indiana’s state constitution (requiring free and fair elections) as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. They argued that the law would increase voter disenfranchisement in the state by burdening the old, indigent, and other minorities who may not have identification.

The Southern District of Indiana upheld the voter ID law as a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction on voters and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the law’s validity. When the litigation reached the Supreme Court in 2008, the Court held that Indiana’s photo ID requirement was constitutional. Focusing on (1) the lack of evidence in the record that the law burdened a broad swath of Indiana voters’ rights and (2) the State’s interest in protecting election integrity, the Court concluded that the law did not impose “‘excessively burdensome requirements’ on any class of voters.” Crawford v. Marion County Election Bd., 553 U.S. 181, 203 (2008).

The law’s supporters argue that it was necessary to restore public confidence in the electoral process in the wake of the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida. And, state legislators who wrote the law have said that they wanted a reasonable law with numerous exceptions, including for the disabled, elderly, indigent, and those with religious objections. Even if someone lacks an ID on election day, that person can cast a provisional ballot, which will be counted if the person comes up with an ID within ten days. That said, Indiana legislators have been hard pressed to prove that their photo ID law has reduced in-person election fraud as intended.

How has Indiana’s law affected voters over the past twelve years? Michael J. Pitt, an Indiana University law professor, studied the law’s effect on disenfranchisement during the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles. Pitt concluded that the photo identification requirement had a relatively small disenfranchising effect on the electorate and that disenfranchisement in Indiana appeared to be declining overall. However, Pitt also found that the photo ID law disparately impacted women. In 2016, Indiana’s Secretary of State, Connie Lawson, claimed that “there [had] not been one case where on person can name a single voter who has been disenfranchised by our voter ID requirement.”

In response to its student ID controversy, Purdue has committed to increasing student civic engagement. The university waived the $10 fee that it had planned to charge students for new IDs so more students would participate in last year’s elections. Now, Purdue is affording students a fee grace period prior to this fall’s elections. In July, Purdue President Mitch Daniels signed the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a nationwide pledge by college presidents committing their universities to maximize student-voter participation. The PurdueVotes Coalition, a campus-wide committee dedicated to increasing student-voter turnout, will coordinate with the university to inform Purdue’s students about registration and civic engagement leading up to the 2020 presidential election.

Perhaps surprisingly, little evidence exists that Indiana voters have experienced disenfranchisement from the state’s photo ID law—especially voters from the classes that the plaintiffs in Crawford sought to protect. That said, charging college students a fee at any point could reduce student voter turnout. And, what if county election boards challenge other colleges’ student ID formats around the state? If other counties follow Tippecanoe’s lead, counties could leverage Indiana’s photo ID law to strategically suppress the college vote in future local, state, and federal elections.

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