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High court buys time for action on voter ID laws

WASHINGTON — In seemingly contradictory voting rights actions just a month before November’s elections, the Supreme Court has allowed new Republican-inspired restrictions to remain in force in North Carolina and Ohio while blocking Wisconsin’s voter identification law.

But there is a thread of consistency: In each case, the court appears to be seeking a short-term outcome that is the least disruptive for the voting process.

In Texas on Thursday, a federal district judge struck down the state’s strict voter ID requirement, likening it to a poll tax deliberately meant to suppress minority voter turnout.

The Texas ruling came just hours after the US Supreme Court blocked a Wisconsin voter ID law. The twin rulings were surprising setbacks for largely Republican-backed voter identification rules that generally have been upheld in previous rulings nationwide.

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Approved in 2011, the Texas law is considered among the nation’s harshest and had even been derided in court by the Justice Department as blatant discrimination. Wisconsin’s law was passed the same year and has remained a similar political flashpoint.

The Texas case could create another test of the Supreme Court’s outlook on voter ID laws because the state is promising to appeal the lower court ruling.

US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi, an appointee of President Obama, never signaled during a two-week trial in September that she intended to rule on the Texas law before Election Day. Her ruling Thursday could spare an estimated 13.6 million registered Texas voters from needing photo identification to vote.

The Justice Department says that more than 600,000 of those voters, mostly blacks and Hispanics, currently lack eligible ID to vote.

Gonzales Ramos’s ruling said the law ‘‘creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.’’

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Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office said Friday that Texas would appeal.

None of the voting rights orders issued by the high court in recent days is a final ruling on the constitutionality of the laws. The orders are all about timing — whether the laws can be used in this year’s elections — while the justices defer consideration of their validity.

In some ways, these disputes over the mechanics of voting are like others that crop up frequently just before elections as part of last-minute struggles by partisans to influence who can vote.

Republican lawmakers say the measures are needed to reduce voter fraud. Democrats contend they are thinly veiled attempts to keep eligible voters, many of them minorities supportive of Democrats, away from the polls.

Court rulings at various levels have also revealed partisan divisions. Most judges who voted to uphold the restrictive laws or allow them to take effect while the legal fights play out are Republican appointees. Most of those voting to strike down the laws or prevent them from being enforced were appointed by Democratic presidents. That is true even at the Supreme Court.

The high court has laid out one area of agreement: a general rule discouraging courts in general from letting potentially disruptive changes take effect at the last minute.

‘‘The idea that courts should not impose a new set of voting rules just before an election is not a new one,’’ said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school.

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This year, that idea appears to have led the Supreme Court to outcomes that on the surface appear to be inconsistent, Hasen said. One problem in reading too much into the orders is that they were issued with little explanation.

But in each case, the court took issue with lower court rulings that would have changed the rules too close to an election, Hasen said.

In Wisconsin, that meant that up to 300,000 voters might not have been able to obtain IDs in the few weeks before the election.

The law had been on hold for months and the state itself had planned to spend eight months preparing the electorate for the new ID program, Hasen said. But when the federal appeals court in Chicago ruled last month that the law could be used in November, the state opted to go ahead.

Restrictions on early voting, same-day registration, and provisional ballots in Ohio and North Carolina had been in effect until judges recently stopped them. The Supreme Court put those restrictions back in place.