Racially charged comments by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, got him banned from the league. Photographer: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Racially charged comments by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, got him banned from the league. Photographer: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The widespread condemnation of the vile prejudice expressed by a professional-basketball-team owner and a Nevada rancher underscored the progress America has made on race.

On the same day Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was banned from the game for life for making racist comments, another story with more important racial implications was unfolding: A federal judge in Wisconsin struck down a law passed by that state's Republican legislators that would have made voting harder by requiring state-approved photo identification at polling places.

More than 30 states have sought to impose voting restrictions over the past three years. Supporters of the measures claim they are aimed at preventing voting fraud. Critics say they are designed to disenfranchise, particularly black Americans and members of other minorities, and are the greatest threat since the Voting Rights Act was passed almost a half century ago. They are fighting back.

"We're in the most intense national struggle over voting since the 1960s," says Wendy Weiser, who directs a program for the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal advocacy group. After the U.S. Supreme Court weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act last year, states were emboldened to make voting harder for some. The principal weapons were the requirement for photo IDs and curbs on early voting.

Almost every reputable study shows that such measures disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters, college students and people with disabilities -- groups that vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Advocates for the restrictions have a difficult time documenting real voter fraud.

"The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past," the Wisconsin judge declared in last week's ruling. (Courts have overturned similar laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas.)

The two states where the battle is most fierce may be Texas and North Carolina, where Republicans have introduced laws they say are necessary to stop voting irregularities. In Texas, a license to carry a concealed gun is deemed a legitimate form of photo ID, but not student IDs.

The Brennan Center commissioned a study to assess the impact of requiring photo IDs in two heavily Hispanic areas. Most of the state offices that issue such documents are open only a day or two a week. In Cotulla, a small town in rural south Texas, the nearest state photo-ID-issuing office is open once a week and is an hour's drive away.

In addition to the photo ID requirement, North Carolina also curbed registration drives for young voters and cut back early voting, which is disproportionately exercised by minorities, by one week.

The Americans Civil Liberties Union, which opposes these laws, asked two professors to gauge the impact; they concluded that 900,000 North Carolinians voted in that now-eliminated early week and estimated that the new, compressed voting schedule could drive at least 18,000 potential voters to give up in frustration. In 2008, Barack Obama carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes.

Critics of the laws, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a lot of Democrats, are waging a fierce counterattack in the courts and in public opinion. The Obama administration is bringing legal action against North Carolina and Texas. Some Democrats think these restrictions could cause a backlash, energizing black voters in North Carolina and other states.

And some Republicans think their party is making a big mistake. Last summer, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told North Carolina business leaders that the only rationale for that state's new voting laws was to make it harder for minorities to vote. Wisconsin state Senator Dale Schultz said his Republican Party's efforts to demonstrate voter fraud had "failed miserably."

Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge who is the most eminent intellectual conservative on the bench and the author of a decision upholding a voting crackdown in Indiana seven years ago, lamented that similar subsequent laws are "widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention."

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: 
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.