S.C. voter ID upheld, with safeguards

From Staff and Wire ReportsOctober 11, 2012 

— A federal court Wednesday unanimously upheld South Carolina’s voter ID law, overturning its rejection by the U.S. Justice Department.

The federal panel found the law was not discriminatory because of the safeguards in it.

But the three judges said their ruling comes too late for the law to be applied in next month’s elections and directed S.C. election officials to wait until next year before using it.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed the voter ID measure into law in 2011, praised the ruling as a victory. “Every time the federal government has thrown us a punch, we have fought back,” Haley said in a statement. “This win is not just for South Carolina, this is a win for our country.”

In their ruling, the three judges said repeatedly that the new law – as state officials propose to enact it – does not require voters to have a photo ID.

“(The law) allows citizens with non-photo voter registration cards to still vote without a photo ID so long as they state the reason for not having obtained one,” the judges wrote.

Among the acceptable reasons for not having a photo ID are having to work, being unemployed and looking for a job, lacking transportation to a state office, the cost of that travel, child or family issues, lacking a birth certificate, disability or illness, a religious objection or being “busy with my charitable work,” the judges wrote.

“Any reason asserted by the voter ... for not having a photo ID must be accepted,” unless false, and the voter’s “ballot counted.”

The unanimous ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was a rebuke of Attorney General Eric Holder, who in December blocked the state law after finding that it violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying it discriminated against black voters.

But Justice Department officials Wednesday pointed to the judges’ opinion that the law had been upheld only because state officials, during a contentious weeklong federal trial in August, vowed to enact it more leniently than it is written.

“The court’s pre-clearance 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,” Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“If the law — as modified by South Carolina during the course of the trial — takes effect for future elections, the attorney general intends to monitor its implementation closely to ensure compliance with the court’s order,” Iverson said.

The ruling runs counter to an Aug. 30 decision by a different three-judge panel on the same federal bench. That panel rejected Texas’ voter ID law, similar to the S.C. law in broad outline but with some key differences.

It was those differences the judges focused on in ratifying the S.C. law, which the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed over the objections of African-American legislators.

The three judges said the South Carolina law’s “expansive reasonable impediment provision” — which the Texas law does not have — and state officials’ vow to interpret that provision liberally will enable voters to cast ballots even if they don’t possess one of the five types of photo IDs required by the law.

Under the clause, voters can sign an affidavit citing a “reasonable impediment” to having obtained a photo ID and cast a provisional ballot, which must be counted unless the reason given is untruthful.

The NAACP, among several civil and voting rights groups that intervened in the case against the S.C. law, portrayed the ruling as a “partial victory” because it blocks the law from being used next month, when President Barack Obama will seek re-election.

“As we celebrate this small victory, we still must understand that the law, as written, has the potential to disenfranchise thousands of voters in future elections,” Jotaka Eaddy, head of the NAACP’s voting rights initiative, said in a statement.

The three judges who ruled on the South Carolina law included two appointees of Republican President George W. Bush and one appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton. The Clinton appointee, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in addition to joining the majority ruling, wrote a separate concurring opinion explaining her support for the law.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson hailed the ruling as a vindication of Republican state legislators, whom the law’s foes accused of promoting the legislation in order to suppress the votes of African-Americans in South Carolina.

“The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise,” Wilson said. “They ensure integrity at the ballot box.”

In a dig at Obama administration civil rights lawyers, Wilson added: “This ruling also affirms South Carolina’s voter ID law should have been pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department.”

But one of the two Bush appointees who joined Wednesday’s ruling, Judge John Bates, defended Holder’s original decision to reject the law, noting state election officials had modified it substantially during the subsequent federal trial.

“It is understandable that the attorney general of the United States, and then the intervenor-defendants in this case, would raise serious concerns about South Carolina’s voter photo ID law as it then stood,” Bates wrote in a separate concurring opinion.

Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“The South Carolina Democratic Party strongly disagrees with the court’s opinion and is hopeful that the United States Supreme Court will resolve the differences between the various voter ID cases around the country,” Harpootlian said in a statement.

The ruling follows a string of recent voter law decisions.

In Pennsylvania, a judge blocked that state from enforcing its voter ID law next month, saying voters would have trouble getting IDs before elections. A federal appeals court forced Ohio to reinstate three early voting days leading up to the November elections. And in Mississippi, state officials announced they could not enforce photo ID requirements for this year’s elections after the Justice Department asked for more details on the law.

Courts also have blocked voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. Texas has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, and the civil rights and voting groups that oppose the S.C. law may do the same.

Such laws became priority issues in mostly Republican legislatures and for governors after the 2008 elections. Opponents have described them as responses to the record turnouts of minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that helped put Barack Obama, the first African-American president, in the White House.

Debate over the laws has intensified in part because of the tight presidential race between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Supporters have pitched these laws as necessary to deter voter fraud, even if very few cases of voter impersonation have been found, and to build public confidence in elections.

The McClatchy Washington bureau and The Associated Press contributed

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