Judicial Notebook

The relative significance of one person's vote is sometimes questioned, yet the right to vote remains central to democracy. Such a right is not immutable, but it is one that courts hesitate to burden. In its current term, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the contours of what constitutes a permissible burden on the right to vote in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (No. 07-21), a case that involves a challenge to an Indiana law that requires voters to present photo identification at the polling place before they can cast their votes.

Case background

The Indiana law requires, with some exceptions, that those who wish to vote furnish a government-issued photo identification. Those unable to provide such identification are not allowed to vote, though they may cast provisional ballots.

The plaintiffs in the Crawford case--which include the Democratic Party, elected public officials and nonprofit organizations--claim that the law unduly encumbers the right to vote by preventing a segment of the public from accessing the polls. The lower court ruled for the defendants and dismissed the suit.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit weighed the potential burden of the law against its potential benefits. The court argued that the "benefits of voting to the individual voter are elusive" because elections "are never decided by just one vote." It also noted that many people who are eligible to vote do not register, that even "slight costs in time or bother" deter many voters and that voter turnout does not approach the number of registered voters. Ultimately, the court recognized that the law would deter some voters from voting and recognized that certain segments of the population--for example, those lower on the socioeconomic spectrum--are more likely to be deterred.

However, the court questioned the extent of this burden and concluded that it was small relative to the harm--voter fraud--which the law sought to address. The dissent, in contrast, questioned the extent to which voter fraud was a problem in Indiana and concluded that the law would unduly burden "a recognizable segment of potential eligible voters." The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on Jan. 9.

Ripe for psychological study

The Crawford case raises a number of issues that should interest psychologists. First, the Seventh Circuit opinion posited that individual voters do not receive much, if any, instrumental benefit from voting. Economic theory suggests that a "rational voter" would not vote because the costs associated with voting (e.g., time) are likely to outweigh the expected benefits of voting (see Downs, 1957), yet relatively large proportions of the population continue to vote. Indeed, voting is the most common form of political activity (Kinder, 1998). Thus, psychologists and other social scientists have explored a variety of motivations for voting, even when an individual vote is not likely to be decisive. Voters may, for example, believe that voting is a civic obligation, an altruistic act that benefits society broadly or an affirmation of a feeling of political efficacy (see Sears, 1987).

Second, although both sides in Crawford agreed that Indiana's voter identification law would hinder some potential voters and that these effects would be borne disproportionately by particular subsets of voters, the two sides disagreed about the extent to which the law would deter voting and about the extent to which voter fraud occurs and would be deterred. Social psychology teaches that environmental factors such as voter registration requirements or voter identification requirements can have important effects on behavior. Psychologists are well-positioned to design research to explore the extent to which people lack the requisite identification, how such deficits are distributed, how the multiple motives individuals have for exercising their right to vote are affected by changes in voting rules and how identification requirements might affect voter turnout.

Importantly, the voter identification law at issue in Crawford is but one example of a range of voting-related election rules being explored across the country--rules that affect the mechanics of registering to vote, the purging of registration rolls, the identification of voters and voting technology. These efforts and their influences on behavior are ripe for psychological study.


"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).