Federal Court Clears South Carolina Voter ID Law

A federal three-judge panel in Washington cleared the way Wednesday (October 10) for South Carolina's voter ID law, setting aside the Justice Department's objections that the measure would disproportionately disadvantage minority voters in the state.

The decision comes as opponents of voter ID laws have successfully, if temporarily, blocked these laws from taking effect in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But as Statelinereported Wednesday, they have done little to alter the long-term trend of courts finding voter ID laws – provided they're given enough time to be implemented and are somewhat flexible – to be constitutional.

In this sense, the South Carolina decision was a significant victory for supporters of voter ID laws both in the state and around the country, particularly since it comes over the objections of the Justice Department. Similar objections, voiced as part of the department's preapproval authority under the Voting Rights Act, played a role in scuttling Texas's more-stringent voter ID law earlier this year.

Still, South Carolina's law won't be in place until 2013, as the federal court ruled there was not enough time to implement it before Election Day.

But in granting approval, the D.C. District Court panel found the Justice Department's denial of pre-clearance to be unnecessary given the expansiveness of South Carolina's law. Unlike some stricter voter ID laws, such as Texas's, the three-judge panel found sufficient flexibility in South Carolina's statute to allow it to go forward.

“In, short, [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; it expands the list of qualifying photo IDs that may be used to vote; and it makes it far easier to obtain a qualifying photo ID than it was under pre-existing law,” the court ruled. “Therefore, we conclude that the new South Carolina law does not have a discriminatory retrogressive effect.”

The court went on to say that the Justice Department “oddly resisted” both the state and the court's contention that the law was flexible enough to guarantee the right to vote. As the opinion notes, Georgia and New Hampshire saw their voter ID laws approved by the department even though they include only one of the two kinds of fallback provisions that the South Carolina has.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson praised the decision in a statement after the ruling was released, calling it a victory both for the state and voter ID laws in general.

“Today's ruling by the three judge panel is 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,” Wilson said. “The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise; they ensure integrity at the ballot box.”

Despite South Carolina's success in defending its law under the Voting Rights Act, the provision that allowed the Justice Department to block it in the first place, known as section 5, is still under attack from officials in Texas. They pledged to fight a previous ruling that sided with the Justice Department against the law, which is thought to be the most restrictive of any in the country.

That appeal is waiting to be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, which may do so during its current term. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, applies to 16 jurisdictions in the U.S. that have a history of voter discrimination. It requires officials to gain Justice Department approval before implementing any election law changes.

Some say it's possible the court could strike the preclearance provision if it takes up Texas's appeal, which argues that the measure itself is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, state courts continue to consider the constitutionality of voter ID laws. In Wisconsin, the state's law was found to be unconstitutional under state law. But that ruling is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to reverse it.

A judge in Pennsylvania blocked that state's law ahead of this year's election saying the state didn't have enough time to implement it and ensure the right to vote. But he left unanswered the question of whether it is constitutional, although it's expected it will eventually be upheld both by the lower court and the state Supreme Court.

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