WASHINGTON — Federal judges grilled attorneys Monday over South Carolinas controversial voter-ID law, which opponents say would disenfranchise thousands of minorities but supporters say includes ample protection against discrimination at the polls.
During closing arguments in a six-day federal trial over the law, the three-judge panel challenged attorneys for the state over election officials shifting stances on how they would implement the law.
But the judges also asked opposing attorneys why they are rejecting clear efforts by those election officials to soften the laws possible harmful impact on African-American voters.
The S.C. law, which Attorney General Eric Holder blocked after its May 2011 enactment, has national implications, pitting a states right to prevent electoral fraud against the federal governments mandate under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure equal access to the polls for minority Americans.
The embattled law is one of more than a dozen that mainly Republican-majority state legislatures have passed in recent years. It would require a voter to show one of five forms of identification: a drivers license, a photo ID issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, a passport, military ID or a voter registration card with a photo issued by the local elections office.
The laws foes say it would affect black South Carolinians disproportionately because 71,000 registered African Americans lack any of the five IDs a relatively bigger share than white voters who are without them. Opponents also contend those black voters would have more trouble obtaining acceptable photo IDs because they are poor and live predominantly in counties that have little or no public transportation.
Garrard Beeney, an attorney for civil rights groups and potentially disenfranchised voters who oppose the law, ridiculed testimony by Marci Andino, the executive director of the State Election Commission, as contradictory. He said the states thousands of precinct volunteers would be left to interpret whether someone could vote without proper ID by claiming a reasonable impediment to getting one, as permitted by one of the laws key clauses.
U.S. District Judge John Bates pointed out S.C. officials had promised to distribute instructions for implementing the law. Beeney responded the law is irreparably flawed: Poll volunteers, he said, are being asked to implement it in ways that it doesnt allow or that other laws prohibit.
Bates asked: Are there cases where a court has said it doesnt trust the way a state says its going to interpret the law?
Beeney replied that trust isnt the issue because even with the best intentions, state election officials lack legal authority over county election boards.
There is no doubt and no dispute that the county election commissions are the ones that control elections, Beeney said.
He urged the judges to reject the states assurances that reasonable impediment affidavits, which voters without the required IDs must sign explaining why they didnt obtain one, would be accepted without being notarized despite legal requirements that notaries witness affidavits.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a U.S. Appeals Court judge who is sitting on the federal district bench panel for this trial, chided Justice Department lawyer Matthew Colangelo for rejecting pledges by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, Andino and other state officials that they will interpret the law leniently and err on the side of the voter.
There was ambiguity when we started, Kavanaugh told Colangelo. But weve come a long way, and weve come a long way in your direction.
Kavanaugh and Colangelo engaged in spirited banter over whether state officials interpretation of the law can trump the laws provisions when they are contradictory.
South Carolina has been proposing a very expansive interpretation of the reasonable impediment provision, yet DOJ rejects that very expansive interpretation, Kavanaugh said. Theyve interpreted the law to say a notary is not required (for the affidavits). Accept that! Why is that not a victory? But youre fighting it.
Colangelo responded state officials cant ignore the laws requirements or legislators intent in passing it as they enforce it.
Bates indicated if the court upholds the law, it might prohibit the measure from being used in Novembers elections because theres too little time to educate voters and train poll workers.
In a separate development, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, both South Carolina Republicans, joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, in writing a letter to Holder in which they claimed the attorney general had overruled his staffs recommendations that the Justice Department approve the S.C. law.
It is troubling that scarce funds are likely being wasted opposing common-sense legislation that was cleared by the departments own nonpartisan experts, the lawmakers wrote.
A separate three-judge panel last month upheld Holders rejection of a similar Texas voter-ID law, saying it violates the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the South Carolina and Texas laws, possibly in tandem as a single decision.