Black South Carolina residents testified Thursday in federal court that financial hardship and a lack of transportation would likely keep them from voting if a state voter ID law that the Department of Justice has blocked goes into effect.
“It probably would be difficult for me,” said Dolores Freelon, a Columbia, S.C., resident who does not have any of the five forms of photo ID the 2011 law requires voters to show before casting a ballot. “I’m just on a fixed income. Most of my money is gone real quick.”
South Carolina is suing the Justice Department over its ruling that the law would disproportionately burden black voters. The case is being heard by a three-judge panel this week in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
The Justice Department has argued that because of socioeconomic factors, blacks are less likely than whites to have one of the five accepted IDs. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the federal government must review election laws passed in states that have a history of discriminating against minority voters.
The department won a ruling in a separate but related case Thursday when a different three-judge panel in the same court ruled that Texas’ voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act because it would impact poor people more than others and a disproportionate share of impoverished Texans are African-Americans or Hispanics.
If Texas appeals the ruling as expected, the case will bypass the federal appellate bench and go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court as required by the Voting Rights Act.
Many political observers expect the South Carolina case also to end up at the Supreme Court.
In South Carolina, IDs accepted under the law include a driver’s license, a Department of Motor Vehicles-issued photo ID, a passport, a military ID, or a voter registration card with photo issued by the local elections office. Elections offices will not begin issuing photo IDs unless the law takes effect.
Freelon testified Thursday she has tried numerous times to obtain an accepted identification card. When she has applied for a passport or a DMV ID, she has been turned away because her birth certificate does not include her first name.
Without identification, she would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot. But she would have to sign a notarized affidavit swearing she had a “reasonable impediment,” and she said the $10 fee that notaries typically charge might be more than she could pay.
Freelon would be able to get a free photo ID from the elections office without a birth certificate if the law is cleared, said Christopher Bartolomucci, a lawyer for South Carolina.
But Freelon said she would not be able to get to the elections office. She does not drive. Recently she has been cancelling her doctor’s appointments because her daughter does not have time to drive her there.
Many of the patients Brenda Williams of Sumter, S.C., treats in her private practice would face similar challenges in obtaining an accepted ID, Williams testified.
Williams described most of her patients as black, poor and over 65. They were not born in hospitals and do not have birth certificates, she said. Obtaining birth certificates would require credit cards, Internet access and more money than they can pay.
Michael McGinley, an attorney for South Carolina, challenged Williams to name a single person who would not be able to get a photo ID from the elections office. She could not, but she said the law still sapped her confidence in the voting process.
Although testimony from black voters took up the majority of the morning, judges appeared still to be mulling over statements the day before by South Carolina elections director Marci Andino.
Andino testified Wednesday she would tell poll managers not to turn away voters who claimed to have reasonable impediments, even if they could not produce notarized affidavits. Lawyers opposing the law argued that she would be telling poll managers to violate it.
On Thursday, the judges asked South Carolina to explain by the end of the trial who would have the authority to interpret and apply the law. U.S. District Judge John Bates said the state’s position seemed to have shifted over the course of the trial.
“It’s important to have a sense of this earlier rather than later,” Bates said. “Personally, I don’t want to find out I’m dealing with a new case three weeks from now.”
A decision in the case is expected before the November election.
McClatchy correspondent James Rosen contributed.