updated 9/25/2007 11:04:13 AM ET 2007-09-25T15:04:13

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.

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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.

The state Democratic party and civil rights groups complained that the law unfairly targets poor and minority voters, without any evidence that in-person voter fraud exists in Indiana. The party argued that those voters tend to be Democrats.

Courts have upheld voter ID laws in Arizona and Michigan, but struck down Missouri’s. Earlier this month, a federal judge dismissed a challenge to Georgia’s voter identification law, saying the statute does not impose a significant burden on the right to vote.

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.”

The voter ID challenge was among 17 new cases accepted by the court in advance of the start of its new term on Monday.

The cases are Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 07-21, and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, 07-25.

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