South Carolina became the fourth state to be blocked from requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot in the Nov. 6 election.
A special panel of three federal judges in Washington yesterday ruled that given the time left before the election, requiring photo ID at polling stations puts a burden on minority voters that violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Proper and smooth functioning” of a key protection in the South Carolina law can only be assured in elections after this year, the judges said.
“Even assuming the best intentions and extraordinary efforts by all involved, achieving that goal is too much to reasonably demand or expect in a four week-period -- and there is too much of a risk to African-American voters for us to roll the dice in such a fashion,” U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh said in the ruling.
Republican-backed voter-ID laws in Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have also been stopped in court this year. Supporters of the laws, passed since President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, say they are needed to prevent voter fraud. Opponents contend they are aimed at suppressing the votes of lower-income people and the elderly who might be more inclined to vote for Democrats.
South Carolina is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that need approval from either the Justice Department or a special panel of federal judges in Washington to change election procedures under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The court said there was nothing inherently discriminatory in the law that would bar enforcement in future elections.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called the ruling “a major victory for South Carolina and its election process.”
“It affirms our voter ID law is valid and constitutional under the Voting Rights Act,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise. They ensure integrity at the ballot box.”
Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said South Carolina’s law underwent “broad modifications” after the department raised concerns that it would exclude minority voters.
“The court’s preclearance of the law for future elections is expressly conditioned on South Carolina’s binding promise that all qualified voters without photo ID will still be allowed to vote without additional burden,” Iverson said in an e-mailed statement. “The attorney general intends to monitor its implementation closely to ensure compliance with the court’s order.”
J. Gerald Hebert, a lawyer who represented groups seeking to block the law, said the ruling was “a victory for the voters of South Carolina over their own elected officials.”
South Carolina’s law gives prospective voters two options for the ID they need. They can show one of four approved state-or federal-issued photo IDs or use a voter registration card bearing the individual’s picture that the state will issue for free.
South Carolina’s voter ID law was the first to be rejected by the Obama administration under the Voting Rights Act. The state responded to the Justice Department’s refusal to clear the plan by filing a lawsuit in February.
During final arguments in the case last month, the judges appeared skeptical that the state would have enough time to get the law in place for the Nov. 6 election, saying that many state-imposed deadlines for implementation expired last year.
The department argued that South Carolina didn’t produce any evidence of in-person voter fraud in the state. Rather, legislators ignored information from election officials showing that 63,756 of the 178,175 voters who lack state photos, or about 36 percent, were non-white, the department said.
A study by the department’s expert, Charles Stewart, found that black voters in South Carolina are more than twice as likely as white voters to lack one of the acceptable forms of identification.
A lawyer for the state, H. Christopher Bartolomucci, argued in court that South Carolina’s ID law differed from Texas’s in that photo identification cards would be available free of charge in at least two places in every county.
The law’s so-called reasonable impediment provision allows would-be voters with old, non-photo registration cards to cast ballots after filling out an affidavit explaining why they lack a photo ID, the judges said. Election officials can reject those ballots only if they find the affidavit was false, according to the ruling.
“That extremely broad interpretation of the reasonable impediment provision will make it far easier than some might have expected or feared for South Carolina voters with a non-photo registration card (and without photo ID) to vote as they could under pre-existing law,” wrote Kavanaugh, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush.
Without the reasonable impediment provision, the law may not have been cleared for use in post-2012 elections, he said.
U.S. district judges John Bates and Colleen Kollar-Kotelly joined the opinion. Bates is also a Bush appointee while Kollar-Kotelly was nominated by President Bill Clinton.
The case is South Carolina v. U.S., 12-cv-00203, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).