WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for Arizona to enforce a new rule for next month's election that requires most voters to show proof of identification before casting a ballot.
In an unsigned and apparently unanimous opinion, the justices reversed a ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that had blocked the Arizona law from taking effect this year.
The justices emphasized that they were not ruling on the still-pending constitutional challenge to the law. They also noted that the law included some exceptions for eligible voters without photo identification.
Nonetheless, Friday's order is likely to be seen as a benefit for Republican candidates and a setback for Democrats.
In recent years, Republicans in Congress and in many state capitals have pressed for voter-identification requirements at the ballot box. They say these rules are needed to combat fraudulent voting.
These laws have been opposed by Democrats and civil rights advocates. They say that there is little evidence of such fraud and that the requirements are designed to suppress voting by poor, elderly, disabled or minority persons who do not have a government-issued photo identification, such as a driver's license.
Courts in recent weeks have blocked new voter ID laws in Georgia and Missouri. A challenge to an Indiana law is before an appeals court.
The Arizona measure was approved in 2004 by 56% of the vote as part of Proposition 200. Most of the controversy over this initiative involved its provisions for cutting off public benefits to immigrants.
Under Arizona's law, eligible voters who do not have the required identification may vote as many as five days before election day. This gives election officials time to match their signatures with voter rolls. Voters without identification may cast a provisional ballot on election day, but their vote will be counted only if they furnish the required identification within five days.
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and several other civil rights groups sued to block the voter identification rule from being enforced Nov. 7. They called the rule a "21st century poll tax" because it could force some poor voters to purchase photo ID cards. Some voting rights experts also said this requirement could significantly depress voting by the state's Navajos.
A federal judge refused to block the law from taking effect, but on Oct. 5, a two-judge panel of the 9th Circuit issued an order saying the law could not be enforced for the upcoming election. The appeals court did not explain its ruling.
Arizona's attorney general asked the Supreme Court to intervene. And on Friday afternoon, the high court issued a six-page opinion that set aside the 9th Circuit's order. It noted that the 9th Circuit's "bare order" did not give a good reason for blocking the law from taking effect.
The court, however, said its decision was not intended to express an opinion on the outcome of the case, which must still be argued.
The opinion cites arguments on both sides. A state has "a compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election process," the court said. At the same time, it noted that the "possibility that qualified voters might be turned away" required careful consideration of a challenge to the law.