Washington A voter seeking to cast a ballot is first told to produce a photo ID. Is that intimidation or a prudent safeguard against election fraud?
The Supreme Court said Tuesday it intends to decide, stepping into a controversy that blends race, partisan politics and the Constitution.
Officially, the justices said they would consider a challenge to the constitutionality of an Indiana law. But several other states have enacted various forms of voter ID legislation in the past five years, and the court's ruling could affect them as well.
"Indiana's voter identification law is currently the most onerous in effect in the nation," opponents alleged in legal papers filed with the court. They contended that "the restrictive conditions imposed in Indiana are a harbinger of future regulations" elsewhere, and urged the justices to rule before the 2008 elections.
Despite the claim of unconstitutionality, a federal judge upheld the Indiana measure, and an appeals court did likewise. "The purpose of the Indiana law is to reduce voting fraud, and voting fraud impairs the right of legitimate voters to vote by diluting their votes," Judge Richard Posner wrote in his majority opinion.
Even if the Supreme Court settles the legal issue, it is unlikely to end the political combat that often surrounds such legislation.
The Indiana law was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by a Republican governor over the objections of many Democrats. The constitutional challenge was brought by the state Democratic Party, a county Democratic committee and two Democratic office holders, as well as organizations including the NAACP.
Underscoring the national political alignment, the Republican National Committee's official Web site includes a section devoted to recent cases of alleged voter fraud. Following the court's announcement, an aide directed reporters to a recent posting on two guilty pleas last week in cases of voter fraud in Indiana.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee responded cautiously to the court's announcement.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court is bringing attention to this important issue," said Danny Diaz.
"This is another step to ensure that every citizen who is eligible to vote will have that right and their vote will count."
Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who heads the DNC Voting Rights Institute, likened voter ID requirements to a "modern-day poll tax" designed to disenfranchise black and poor voters.
"Some of us in the voting-rights community are very nervous because we fear the court will make matters worse," she said.