WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared to split along partisan lines Wednesday as the justices weighed a challenge to Indiana's toughest-in-the-nation law requiring every voter to show a photo identification card before casting a ballot.
During lively oral arguments, conservative justices appeared sympathetic to the 2005 law, which the state's Republican-controlled legislature passed to combat vote fraud. The more liberal justices questioned whether the law is aimed at suppressing the votes of Democratic-leaning poor, elderly and minority voters, who are least likely to have driver's licenses.
Democrats and civil rights groups say they fear that if the law is upheld, Republican-led legislatures nationwide would adopt similar statutes that would make it harder for those people to vote in the name of addressing a nonexistent problem of voter impersonation.
Paul Smith, a lawyer for the Indiana Democratic Party, told the court that the law is unconstitutional because it imposes an unfair burden, especially on the poor. Under the law, a voter lacking credentials must travel or pay fees to obtain a certified copy of his birth certificate, which is required to get the ID. Indigents can forgo the photo ID requirement if they travel to their county courthouses to vote after swearing to their identities.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito peppered Smith with skeptical questions. Scalia repeatedly challenged the state party's standing to contest the law.
Roberts said the record shows that 99 percent of eligible Indiana voters have photo IDs.
``It would be really a travesty if this court decided the case on that assumption,'' Smith shot back.
``Is it your position that a state can't require any form of identification and can only require a signature?'' Alito asked.
Smith replied that an ID requirement would be acceptable ``if it's readily available and not especially burdensome'' to obtain ``and there is some reason to think it is preventing a fraud.''
Liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens appeared more sympathetic to the legal challenge.
Stevens noted that Indiana's legislature passed the law on a party line vote. ``Don't you think it's fair to infer that this law does have an adverse impact on the Democrats?'' he asked U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who argued in favor of the statute.
Clement replied that if that was the intent, it backfired in 2006 when Republicans fared poorly in the statewide election.
Smith told the justices that about 400,000 people who are eligible to vote in Indiana lack the required government-issued IDs, including about 200,000 who are registered to vote.
But Thomas Fisher, Indiana's solicitor general, said the number of people who'd ``conceivably be inconvenienced'' by the ID requirement probably would be about 25,000. He called that an ``infinitesimal'' percentage of the state's electorate, which exceeds 4 million.
Souter and other liberal justices suggested that Indiana's law might be misdirected, since the state's biggest ballot security problem appears to be voter registration rolls that are bloated by 41 percent with the names of people who've died or moved away. Ginsburg suggested solving the problem by taking a photo of every voter who registers.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who's often the swing vote on the divided court, gave no clear signal that he'd cross over to the liberals' side.
``You want us to invalidate the statute because of minimal inconvenience?'' he asked at one point.
But Kennedy did seem open to considering changes to the law.
He said he wonders ``whether or not there are ways in which ... the central purpose of this law can be preserved, but it could be less stringent.''
Clement's defense of the Indiana law drew criticism from civil rights groups in the wake of a scandal over politicization of the Justice Department. The scandal led to the replacement of the department's voting rights chief, who'd supported a similar Georgia voter ID law.
David Becker, the director of the Democracy Campaign for the People for the American Way Foundation, said Clement's defense of a ``partisan and restrictive barrier to the right to vote'' seems to contrast with new Attorney General Michael Mukasey's portrayal of the agency as depoliticized.
``The more things change,'' Becker said, ``the more they stay the same.''