WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court set the stage yesterday for an election-year ruling on whether states can require voters to show a government-issued photo identification before they cast a ballot. The court's decision, due by June, could affect the outcome of close races in several states.
New photo ID laws in Indiana, Georgia and Arizona have been upheld in the past year, while a Missouri law was blocked from taking effect. By agreeing to hear an appeal from Indiana Democrats, the justices apparently decided they wanted to resolve this legal dispute well before voters go to the polls next fall.
Since 2002, Republicans have championed photo ID laws as a means to prevent fraudulent voting. Under such laws, voters must show a government-issued ID such as a driver's license or a passport to prove to poll workers that they are indeed the person who has registered to vote.
Democrats have strongly opposed this requirement, calling it a solution to a nonexistent problem. It is exceedingly rare, they say, for would-be voters to adopt another person's identity in order to cast a ballot.
The Democrats also say tens of thousands of poor, elderly, disabled or homeless people do not have a current and valid photo ID card. For example, a survey by AARP found that 3 percent of the elderly registered voters in Indiana did not have a valid license with a photo ID.
In addition, Democrats contended fraudulent voting is more likely among those who file absentee ballots by mail, yet the voter identification rule usually does not extend to such voters.
In defense of the laws, Republicans say states, including Indiana, offer free photo ID cards to voters who need one as long as they can supply basic documents, such as a birth certificate, that establish their identity.
This issue has divided state legislators along partisan lines, and the same split has been apparent in the judicial rulings. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld Indiana's law on 2-1 vote. Two Republican appointees made up the majority; a Democratic appointee dissented.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Indiana Democrats filed appeals, arguing that the photo ID rule would act to deprive voters of the fundamental right to vote, rather like poll taxes or literacy tests before the 1960s.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court justices met for the first time since their summer recess. They spent the day sifting through more 2,000 appeals and then announced they had agreed to take 17 of them, including the photo ID case from Indiana.
Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter said the challengers were exaggerating the impact of the law.
"Most telling of all, despite the hue and cry about the supposed burdens of this law," he said, the lawyers who filed suit could not "identify a single actual voter who could or would not vote because of the Voter ID law."
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.