WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday will step into a partisan clash over access to the ballot box that's escalated since the fight over "hanging chads'' in the presidential election of 2000.
The justices will hear diametrically opposite depictions of Indiana's toughest-in-the-nation voter identification law, which requires every voter to present a photo ID card.
Democrats and civil rights groups charge that the law is a Republican ploy to prevent thousands of poor, elderly and minority citizens from casting ballots.
Republicans say that it won't prevent any qualified person from voting. Instead, they say, it guards against vote fraud and heightens public confidence in the integrity of elections.
The high court's decision could have major ramifications for future U.S. elections.
A ruling upholding Indiana's law could set off ``a stampede to model other states' laws on this one,'' disenfranchising thousands more voters, said Paul Smith, a Washington lawyer who'll argue against the law for the Indiana Democratic Party and other plaintiffs.
Indiana Republican Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who helped push for the law, said he believes the Supreme Court took the case because GOP legislators in 25 other states want to pass similar laws.
But an adverse ruling could deliver a serious setback to the nationwide Republican campaign for tougher ID standards for voter registration and balloting.
Richard Hasen, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who submitted a brief opposing the law, said the constitutional question comes down to the extent that a state must document a problem like voter fraud before it can impose new requirements on voters.
A broader question, he said, is the degree to which the court will begin to police a wave of state election laws, enacted by both major parties, since the court's 5-4 decision awarded President Bush the White House in 2000.
Indiana and Georgia are the only states with photo ID requirements so strict that voters aren't allowed to sign sworn affidavits attesting to their identities or to substitute other documents. Unlike Indiana's law, however, Georgia's doesn't require a voter to produce a certified birth certificate to obtain a state-issued ID.
In Georgia, whose initial law was enjoined by a judge and later replaced by a statute offering free IDs for the poor, the state estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 citizens lacked licenses. In Missouri, whose Supreme Court struck down its photo ID law, the estimate was 175,000 to 240,000. Rokita said his office did no such impact analysis before the passage of Indiana's law.
Justin Levitt, a lawyer for New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, pointed to a recent academic survey indicating that 13 percent of lndiana's more than 4 million registered voters lack the required ID.
The Indiana Democratic Party and other plaintiffs maintain in legal briefs that the law is aimed at a nonexistent problem because the state hasn't won a single conviction for voter impersonation fraud — a crime that entails forging another voter's signature at risk of a five-year jail sentence.
They charge that the ID requirement imposes unconstitutional bureaucratic hurdles that will disenfranchise tens of thousands of poor, elderly and minority voters who lack driver's licenses, such as Thelma Hunter, 87, of Indianapolis, and Theresa Clemente, 80, of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Hunter, who is African-American, said in a phone interview that she'd voted Democratic for decades, but had no birth certificate because she was born in a house, not a hospital, in Tennessee. Calling the new law ``disgusting,'' she said that luckily, a friend was able to obtain her birth certificate for her from Tennessee authorities.
Clemente, 80, of Fort Wayne, Ind., said in a sworn affidavit that she presented five forms of identification to the bureau of motor vehicles to obtain a state ID, but was rejected because she lacked a birth certificate. She made two more trips to the agency without getting an ID because she needed certified copies of her birth certificate and then of her marriage certificate due to her name change.
Indiana's Republican-appointed solicitor general, Thomas Fisher, who'll defend the law before the high court, pointed to another kind of vote fraud in absentee ballots in Lake County, Ind., ``as evidence of perhaps a spreading culture of voter fraud.''
Fisher maintained that the law ``goes out of its way to accommodate those'' lacking documentation by allowing them to cast provisional ballots. But critics say those voters must return with the required credentials within 10 days.
More than 40 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed. Submissions favoring the law included ones from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and eight Republican state attorneys general. Opposing it were submissions from California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Rules Committee, and five state Democratic secretaries of state.
U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement threw the Bush administration's support behind the law, although a recent scandal over politicization of the Justice Department led to the ouster of its voting rights chief, who backed Georgia's ID law.