Federal court greenlights South Carolina voter ID law

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David Demirbilek Contributor
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A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unanimously upheld South Carolina’s photo ID statute on Wednesday. The ruling represents a swing in momentum from recent court decisions striking voter ID laws in states including Texas and Pennsylvania.

The court, made up of judges appointed by presidents of both parties, found that South Carolina’s law was in full compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It determined that the law would not disproportionately affect minorities and was not enacted with a discriminatory purpose to disenfranchise minorities.

Under the Voting Rights Act, states with histories of racial discrimination seeking to alter their voting laws must seek permission from either the Justice Department or federal district court in D.C.

Wednesday’s ruling overturned an earlier refusal by the Justice Department to clear the law in December 2011.

The court favorably compared South Carolina’s law to previously approved voter ID laws in other states such as Indiana and Georgia. For instance, it noted that South Carolina provides photo IDs at no cost and provides at least two locations in each county to register for a free ID, minimizing the amount of travel time for registrants.

The court particularly focused on extra safeguards South Carolina included in its law to ensure that its disproportionately minority poor citizens would not be deprived of their ability to vote.

Chief among these protections is the law’s reasonable impediment provision, which provides that South Carolina citizens with a legitimate excuse for being unable to obtain photo ID may still vote a provisional ballot upon showing a non-photo ID. The court cited this feature of the law as completely eliminating the possibility of any minority disenfranchisement.

While a decisive victory for the state, Wednesday’s decision did come with one string attached:  South Carolina will be required to wait until after the 2012 election to enforce the law. The court reasoned that South Carolina will not have time to implement key features of the reasonable impediment provision in the four weeks remaining before the election.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a George W. Bush appointee often considered to be on the short list for a Republican Supreme Court pick, authored the opinion for the court.

Strikingly, Kavanaugh’s opinion takes multiple swipes at common critiques leveled by Democrats against voter ID. Echoing liberal Justice John Paul Stevens in the 2008 case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, Kavanaugh stated that preserving the integrity of a state’s electoral system is a valid state interest, even in the absence of widespread voter fraud.

Additionally, he dismissed arguments made by the Justice Department that states were passing voter ID laws in response “to the election of the country’s first African-American president,” noting instead that states began enacting voter ID laws in response to defects exposed during the 2000 elections.

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