COLUMBIA, S.C. - The U.S. Justice Department was wrong to block South Carolina from requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification to vote, the state's top prosecutor argued in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Enforcement of the new law "will not disenfranchise any potential South Carolina voter," Attorney General Alan Wilson argues in the suit against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "The changes have neither the purpose nor will they have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority."
The Justice Department in December rejected South Carolina's law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, saying tens of thousands of the state's minorities might not be able to cast ballots under the new law because they don't have the right photo ID. It was the first such law to be refused by the federal agency in nearly 20 years.
The department said the law, enacted last year, failed to meet the requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory practices that prevent blacks from voting. The Voting Rights Act also requires the Justice Department to approve changes to South Carolina's election laws because of the state's past failure to protect the voting rights of blacks.
In the lawsuit, Wilson asks that a panel of three federal judges consider the case and declare that the rejected portions of the law are not discriminatory. Wilson also notes that South Carolina's law is similar to one in Indiana that has already been upheld as constitutional. He says the photo ID requirements "are not a bar to voting but a temporary inconvenience no greater than the inconvenience inherent in voting itself."
Citing data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wilson says at least 31 states require voters to show some sort of ID at the polls, and 15 states have enacted photo ID requirements. Since 1988, South Carolina law has required voters to show either a voter registration card or some sort of government-issued ID to be allowed to vote on a regular ballot.
Immediately after the Justice Department's December decision, Wilson had vowed that he would fight the issue in court, saying at the time, "nothing in this act stops people from voting."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice did not immediately comment on the lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union said it disagreed with the lawsuit and planned to oppose it in court.
Passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina's law also required the state to determine how many voters lack state-issued IDs so that the Election Commission can inform them of law changes. The Department of Motor Vehicles will issue free state photo identification cards to those voters.
The federal review of South Carolina's law has sparked a dustup between state agencies over the number of residents who lack state-issued IDs. The State Election Commission has said nearly 240,000 people didn't have an appropriate ID, but the DMV director said that list included more than 37,000 records that appeared to belong to dead people, plus more than 91,000 whose state license records had been dropped because they had IDs in another state.
The last time the Justice Department rejected a voter ID law was in 1994 when Louisiana passed a measure requiring a picture ID. After changes were made, it was approved by the agency. Justice officials are reviewing Texas' new law. Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin also passed laws this year, but they are not under the agency's review.
South Carolina is among five states that last year passed laws requiring some form of ID at the polls. Such laws were already on the books in Indiana and Georgia, whose law received approval from President George W. Bush's Justice Department. Indiana's law, passed in 2005, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.
Those new laws also allow voters without the required photo ID to cast provisional ballots, but the voters must return to a specific location with that ID within a certain time limit for their ballots to count.
Most of the laws have been promoted and approved by Republicans, who argue they are needed to avert voter fraud. Democrats say the measures are actually aimed at reducing minority votes for their candidates.