WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday upheld state requirements that voters show photo identification cards before casting ballots.
Citing different reasons, six of the nine justices said that Indiana's photo ID requirement represented a valid measure to deter voter fraud. The politically significant decision reaches well beyond Indiana, as other states likewise have been adopting more rigorous voter identification standards.
"There is no question about the legitimacy or importance of the state's interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote. "While the most effective method of preventing election fraud may well be debatable, the propriety of doing so is perfectly clear."
Issued on the eve of next Tuesday's closely watched Indiana presidential primary, the court's decision drew immediate fire from Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the ruling "diminishes" voting rights, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blamed "improper partisan motives" for the move to require photo IDs.
Among Republicans, though, the decision buttresses efforts to extend strict voter identification requirements beyond Indiana.
"It's a victory for the voters and taxpayers of the entire country," Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita declared in a news conference conducted by telephone. "Now we have a very clear road map for other states to follow."
Six other states besides Indiana, including Georgia and Florida, already require voters to present photo IDs.
In 18 other states, voters must present identification that need not include a photograph. But legal challenges abound. Missouri, for instance, imposed a photo ID requirement that was struck down by the state's Supreme Court in 2006.
Critics, especially among minority groups, contend that the photo identification requirements effectively impede voting participation. They challenged Indiana's law as a politically driven infringement of constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
Lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ethnic groups such as the Asian American Justice Center and state-level officials such as Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan all weighed in with legal briefs opposing Indiana's law as onerous and unnecessary.
"In Missouri," one legal brief noted, "there have been no reported cases of polling place voter impersonation fraud during Secretary Carnahan's tenure."
Stevens, though, joined with Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy in concluding that there was little "concrete evidence" that the identification requirements imposed an undue burden on voters. The three justices determined that the requirement was reasonable even if "partisan interests may have provided one motivation" for the law.
"The application of the statute to the vast majority of Indiana voters is amply justified by the valid interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process," Stevens wrote.
The ruling leaves open the possibility that other voter identification laws may be challenged, but only if the focus is on how the law has been applied.
The decision consolidated two related cases, called Crawford v. Marion County Election Board and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita.
Reasoning separately, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito concluded that a state should be able to set a higher voting standard unless it imposes "a severe and unjustified overall burden upon the right to vote, or is intended to disadvantage a particular class." That sets a very high standard for any challenge to meet.
An estimated 43,000 Indiana voters — about 1 percent of the state's total — lack required photo ID cards. Many of these, Justice David Souter added in dissent, "are likely to be in bad shape economically." In sometimes fervent language, he likened the ID requirement to the Southern poll taxes struck down by the Supreme Court more than 40 years ago.
"The Indiana statute crosses the line when it targets the poor and the weak," Souter wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Stephen Breyer added that it would be "difficult and expensive" for poor and elderly non-drivers to obtain ID cards. Breyer further noted that Florida and Georgia have established "less restrictive" requirements, allowing different types of identification cards to be presented.