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Voter ID laws in court: Now, it's South Carolina's turn

September 24, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Steve McDaniel signs in before voting in the 15th Precinct in Knoxville, Tenn. A panel will decide whether a South Carolina voter ID law violates the Voter Rights Act.
Steve McDaniel signs in before voting in the 15th Precinct in Knoxville,… (Adam Brimer / Knoxville…)

South Carolina took its fight for a voter identification law to a federal panel Monday, the latest state to do battle on one of the more crucial fronts of this year’s elections: who gets to cast a ballot.

The federal Justice Department turned thumbs down on the South Carolina law last year, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act, designed to protect access, particularly by minorities, to the polls. Closing arguments in the case were scheduled for Monday; the trial phase was in August.

The three judges will rule only on the South Carolina case – and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to be asked to consider an appeal, regardless of which side wins – but the broader question of who gets to vote has been one of the key issues of the current election cycle.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 17 states have passed restrictive voting laws or have imposed restrictive executive actions. Those states account for 218 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Not all of the states are true battleground states in which turnout could affect the final result, but the major battleground states of Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia are in the group.

In general, the split over access breaks down this way:

-- Democrats favor the broadest interpretation, which would allow their key constituencies of the young, minorities and the elderly to vote in the easiest way possible. About 90% of African American and some 64% of Latino registered voters say they support President Obama over GOP challenger Mitt Romney, according to the most recent Gallup three-week tracking poll.

-- Republicans argue for a tight control on voting access, which they say is needed to prevent fraud and to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

In the South Carolina case, the law, signed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in 2011, requires voters to show a driver's license or other photo ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles; a passport; a military ID with photo; or a voter registration card that includes a photo.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the idea of photo identifications, but the South Carolina law goes further. It allows fewer forms of identifications, which proponents argue could put minorities at a disadvantage.

According to data introduced in the trial phase, South Carolina's population is 64% white, 28% African American and 5% Latino. About 30% of whites do not have DMV-issued identification; 36% of minority voters lacked such IDs.

But the issue of who can vote goes beyond the presidential elections and, in the case of many states, goes to the role of race and ethnicity in the electoral process. The Voting Rights Act was designed to protect racial groups, especially in areas such as the South, where there had been a long history of discrimination coming out of slavery.

In Texas, for example, a three-judge panel recently threw out that state’s photo identification law,  because it placed a heavy burden on the poor and minorities to establish their bona fides. Prospective voters faced trips of 200 to 250 miles to a Department of Public Safety office to get the needed documents to vote, for example. State officials have said they will seek to have the U.S. Supreme Court take an appeal.

In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court tossed back to a lower court a tough law that requires specific kinds of photo identification, and in Wisconsin, two state courts have blocked a similar photo identification law.

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