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South Carolina Voter Law Blocked by Justice Department as Biased

South Carolina’s new law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department, which said it would “significantly” burden non-white voters.

The Justice Department’s decision, announced in a letter yesterday to South Carolina Assistant Deputy Attorney General C. Havird Jones, is the first time the Obama administration has intervened against any of the eight states that enacted new voter ID laws or tightened existing ones this year.

The decision is the latest turn in a partisan feud over voter-identification rules that flares in presidential election years. Republicans press for stricter photo identification as crucial to upholding the integrity of elections, while Democrats, who count minority voters as part of their political base, oppose the statutes as attempts to disenfranchise people.

“It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th Amendment rights,” South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley said in a statement.

The new laws, adopted largely in states controlled by Republican lawmakers, have the potential to swing the outcome of races in 2012, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Close Race Concerns

“Our estimate is tens of thousands of people could be prevented from voting based on this kind of law and in a state like Wisconsin in a presidential race that’s close, the race could be determined by a few hundred votes or certainly a few thousand,” Norden said.

The Justice Department’s decision may preview an aggressive stance against efforts to tighten voting requirements, said Glenn Totten, a Democratic consultant.

“This could be the first shot of an attempt to battle back against what generally has been a free ride to put up obstacles to voters,” Totten said.

Under the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina is among 16 states or parts of states that have a history of voting rights violations and must obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before redrawing their district lines or changing election procedures.

Alabama, Texas

The Justice Department’s decision doesn’t affect Alabama and Texas, which also come under the Voting Rights Act requirement and have passed voter ID laws similar to South Carolina’s. Other states that have enacted similar laws include Kansas and Tennessee.

Attorney General Eric Holder injected himself into the debate last week during a speech on voting rights at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library Museum in Austin, Texas, where he said he had concerns about the South Carolina and Texas voter ID laws. Holder said both would receive a “thorough and fair” review.

The Democratic National Committee accused Republicans of trying to “limit the right to vote” and praised yesterday’s decision.

“The Justice Department’s action helps make sure that people who should be able to vote can,” DNC spokesman Patrick Gaspard said in an e-mailed statement.

The Republican National Committee said the Obama administration was playing politics.

‘Scare Tactics’

“The Democrats’ scare tactics of voter disenfranchisement have no basis in fact,” Kirsten Kukowski, an RNC spokeswoman, said in a statement.

South Carolina’s law, which Haley signed into law in May, requires voters to show government-issued photo ID.

Non-white voters would be “significantly burdened” by the law’s requirements and “disproportionately unlikely to possess” the necessary identification, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees the Justice Department’s civil rights division, in the letter yesterday.

South Carolina can submit additional information and ask the Justice Department to reconsider its decision or instead seek approval from a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington, according to the department’s letter.

Calls to the offices of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott weren’t immediately returned.

‘Reasonable Impediment’

The law exempts people who vote absentee, have religious objections to being photographed or have a “reasonable impediment” such as a physical disability, said Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the South Carolina State Election Commission.

Voters who forget to bring the proper ID could vote using a provisional ballot, which would count if they presented their identification at a county election commission office prior to the election being certified, Whitmire said.

Civil rights groups had asked the Justice Department to block South Carolina’s law, arguing it would suppress turnout among minorities.

“It will send a signal to other states” that they “need to think twice about pursuing this type of plan,” said Tanya Clay House, public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in an interview before the decision was announced.

‘Instill Confidence’

Requiring voters to show photo ID “will instill confidence in the electoral process” and not adversely affect minority voters, said Chip Campsen, a Republican state senator in South Carolina, who sponsored the measure.

“There’s a lot of hyperbole about voter ID laws,” Campsen said in an interview before the decision. “They’re really distorting the intent and the effect.”

Critics of the laws say talk of major voter fraud is overblown.

“If you look at every court case regarding voter ID, there is no evidence ever submitted to any court showing any massive voter fraud anywhere,” said Luis Roberto Vera Jr., general counsel of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens. The Justice Department, Vera said, should similarly block enforcement of the Texas law.

Rogan Kersh, associate dean at New York University’s Wagner School, said studies of voter fraud “in states ranging from Washington to Ohio to Florida, suggest that actual incidences -- of individuals fraudulently casting multiple ballots, or voting under a false/illegitimate identity -- are about as frequent in the U.S. as people being killed by lightning.”

Other Cases

The South Carolina decision didn’t provide clues about how the Justice Department may handle other voting laws submitted for approval under the Voting Rights Act, said Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who served as the civil rights division’s principal deputy assistant attorney general between 2009 and 2001.

“People will necessarily look to this as an indication of the department’s direction,” said Bagenstos. “But at the same time, it’s really going to be about this state and these facts and each state may be different.”

Texas has submitted its law to the Justice Department for approval. Alabama, where the new law doesn’t go into effect until 2014, hasn’t yet asked either the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington to pre-clear its plan.

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