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THE 'RACE ISSUE' with the most far-reaching consequences this week was not the sorry spectacle of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his now-estranged former congregant.

It was Monday's decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to allow states to use measures designed to legally suppress the vote of the poor, the young, the disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Indiana's voter identification requirements -- the most restrictive in the nation -- do just that. The law is a poll tax by another name, with the same intention: to erect barriers to voting.

The Indiana law requires voters to present state-issued identification every time they vote -- not just the first time as is the rule in Pennsylvania.

So even if an elderly Indiana resident has voted in the same polling place for 50 years, she now has to get herself a state-issued photo ID or passport, even if she had no need for one in the past.

While it's true that government-issued photo IDs are required more often these days, an estimated 21 million Americans do not have them, according to a 2006 survey by the Brennan Center for Justice. And collecting the required documents, traveling to government offices and navigating the procedures for obtaining them can pose significant burdens of cost and inconvenience.

This is just what the legislators who crafted the laws planned on. Voter ID laws are designed to suppress the vote of many traditional Democratic constitutencies.

That's why a dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures are preparing their own voter ID laws as we write. All they need is a non-partisan-sounding pretext - in this case, the notion large numbers of people are impersonating eligible voters in order to cast ballots illegally.

There's no actual evidence that such "voter fraud" actually exists but now - thanks to the Supremes - it isn't needed.

The court admitted that there was no evidence of any in-person voting fraud in Indiana. It also recognized that the voter ID requirements put burdens on some potential voters, the nation's most vulnerable, powerless people. Apparently, this no longer matters in America.

As we get closer to the November election, there no doubt will be more focus on the reliability of electronic voting machines. Like the Rev. Wright, that's a distraction from the real issue: This week, the Supreme Court provided the means to steal the election fair and square. *