By Richard Wolf
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to hear a major challenge to Wisconsin's voter ID law, delivering a victory to Republicans who favor tougher election laws.
The decision is a setback for civil rights groups that contend the law could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of residents who lack proper ID — particularly racial minorities, seniors, students and people with disabilities.
It turns both sides' sights on Texas, where a similar statute is pending before a federal appeals court. Eventually, the justices are likely to resolve the festering issue.
For now, it appears a majority of high court justices approve of photo-ID laws such as Wisconsin's, which does not involve allegations of intentional racial discrimination. None of the high court's more liberal justices voiced dissent with the decision not to hear the case.
New election laws in both states, along with Ohio and North Carolina, forced the high court to settle last-minute disputes before the 2014 elections. The justices generally tried not to change procedures as voters were set to go to the polls, but they did not rule on the broader issue: what types of state restrictions are constitutional.
Wisconsin's law was passed in 2011 and used in low-turnout primaries before being blocked by a state court. Last year, a federal district judge declared it unconstitutional because it disproportionately affected black and Hispanic residents.
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in September, in part because of last-minute changes made by state officials to ease the burden on those lacking proper ID. The full appeals court deadlocked 5-5 on the issue, leaving the panel's decision in place.
The Supreme Court blocked the law from taking effect in November to avoid confusion among voters. Before an election featuring judicial and local races slated for April 7, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency motion Monday to block the photo ID requirement, and the state agreed to do so.
Thereafter, the justices' refusal to hear objections to the law means that Wisconsin will become the eighth state with a strict photo identification law that allows no exceptions to a government-issued ID. The others are Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
"The Supreme Court's decision is a huge step backward for our democracy," said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. "The 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters who lack the limited forms of photo ID needed to vote in Wisconsin — disproportionately African Americans and Latinos — deserve to have their voices heard in our political process."
The court cases from Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio and North Carolina are part of a broader national challenge by groups aligned with Democrats and minorities against laws tightening voting procedures passed by Republican legislatures to combat alleged voter fraud.
Among the four states, only North Carolina and Texas were among the states formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required federal approval for any voting changes. That provision was rendered obsolete by the Supreme Court in 2013, leaving challengers to file lawsuits after the fact under a different section of the law.
Oral arguments in the Texas case are scheduled for next month before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.