The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether voter identification laws unfairly deter the poor and minorities from voting, stepping into a contentious partisan issue in advance of the 2008 elections.
The justices will hear arguments early next year in a challenge to an Indiana law that requires voters to present photo ID before casting their ballots. The state has defended the law as a way to combat voter fraud.
Election law experts had urged the court to take the Indiana case to instruct courts on how to weigh claims of voter fraud versus those of disenfranchisement. "The court better resolve this question before ballots start getting counted next fall," said Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan.
The court is expected to issue a decision by late June, in time for the November general election.
The Indiana law enacted in 2005 was upheld by a federal judge and by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Before the law's passage, an Indiana voter had only to sign a poll book at the polling place, where a photo copy of the voter's signature was kept on file for comparison.
"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 said in his majority opinion.
But in a dissent, Judge Terence Evans said, "Let's not beat around the bush. The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic."
Bill Groth, an attorney who has represented the Indiana Democratic Party in the lawsuit, said he was thrilled that the nation's highest court will take up the case. He said the appeals court made light of the right to vote in its decision, but the Supreme Court has guarded that right more seriously.
"The court has over and over stressed that the right to vote should be protected, and any state law that burdens that right should be carefully and meticulously reviewed," Groth said.