Boss Tweed Justice

by Adam Fogel // Published April 29, 2008
The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision yesterday that Indiana's strict voter ID law is not unconstitutional. Proponents of the law argue that it will discourage voter impersonation fraud--a type of election mischief that has never been documented in Indiana and has only been prosecuted a few times in modern election history. The author of the "lead opinion," Justice John Paul Stevens, had to dig so deep into U.S. history to find an instance of this kind of voter fraud that he quotes New York City's William (Boss) Tweed's tough guy "Big Tim" Sullivan:
'When you've voted 'em with their whiskers on, you take 'em to abarber and scrape off the chin fringe. Then you vote 'em again with the side lilacs and a mustache. Then to a barber again, off comes the sides and you vote 'em a third time with the mustache. If that ain't enough and the box can stand a few more ballots, clean off the mustache and vote 'em plain face. That makes every one of 'em good for four votes.' A. Callow, The Tweed Ring 210 (1966) (quoting M. Werner, Tammany Hall 439 (1928)).
As Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights put it, "[The Court's] decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board fashioned a solution to a problem that doesn't exist and in the process, made it difficult for many Americans – seniors, the poor and communities of color – to exercise their constitutional right to vote."

Would the ruling have been different if there were actually an affirmatively protected constitutional right to vote? In most other democracies, the right to vote is held as sacred as we hold our freedom of speech or religion. But in the U.S., legislatures and secretaries of state (like the one in Indiana) put up barriers to voting and discourage participation. We have amendments to the constitution that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex and age, but there is nothing in there that gives every American the right to participate in the democratic process. Congress and the states should act to ensure every citizen has an opportunity to cast a meaningful ballot by passing the Right to Vote Amendment.