A South Carolina voter at the polls (Getty)
By RAJU CHEBIUM, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A federal court upheld South Carolina's voter ID law Wednesday, but refused to let the law take effect until after this year's election.
Three judges on U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unanimously ruled the law doesn't discriminate against minorities, as Justice Department officials and voting-rights groups had alleged.
The judges also ruled the law can't take effect until 2013 because state officials don't have enough time to properly implement it this year.
South Carolina's law requires residents to show any of five types of photo ID to vote. Wednesday's court decision, written by U.S. District Judge Brett Kavanaugh, noted that the law allows people without a photo ID to cast provisional ballots "so long as they state the reason for not having obtained" a photo ID.
The ruling, based on testimony presented during a weeklong trial in August, was endorsed by U.S. District Judges Colleen Kollar-Kotelly and John Bates.
South Carolina's law - called R54 - also makes it easy for citizens to get a free photo ID, Kavanaugh wrote.
"Therefore, we conclude that the new South Carolina law does not have a discriminatory retrogressive effect, as compared to the benchmark of South Carolina's pre-existing law," the court's opinion said. "We also conclude that Act R54 was not enacted for a discriminatory purpose."
But the judges also wrote that South Carolina lacks time to make sure minority voters can overcome "reasonable impediments" to getting proper IDs in time to vote on Nov. 6. State officials have said they need 90 days to inform voters about new ID requirements and train poll workers in new procedures.
Though the judges refused to let the law take effect in time for this year's presidential contest, they said it complies with Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which eliminated barriers white lawmakers put up to keep minorities from the polls.
Under the act, any changes to South Carolina's election laws need approval, or "pre-clearance," from the Justice Department or federal courts because of the state's history of racial discrimination at the polls.
Justice officials rejected R54 in December, prompting South Carolina to turn to the courts this year.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson called Wednesday's ruling a victory.
"It affirms our voter ID law is valid and constitutional under the Voting Rights Act," he said in a statement. "Voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise; they ensure integrity at the ballot box. This ruling also affirms South Carolina's voter ID law should have been pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department."
Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the agency is pleased the South Carolina law won't take effect immediately.
"With regard to future elections, the department welcomes the court's agreement that South Carolina's law required broad modifications in order to respond to the serious concerns raised by the attorney general that the law as written would exclude minority voters," Iverson said in a statement.
The ruling also is "expressly conditioned on South Carolina's binding promise that all qualified voters without photo ID will still be allowed to vote without additional burden," she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the law in court, expressed relief that the law won't take effect this year.
"We're glad that thousands of voters who faced being denied access to the polls will get to vote next month, but are concerned about what lies ahead," Nancy Abudu, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "This is a law that remains harmful regardless of when it is implemented."
A voter ID law in Texas - where any changes to election law must also be pre-cleared by the Justice Department or federal courts - was struck down by a federal court recently after Justice officials rejected it.
Alabama and Mississippi also have passed new voter ID laws that require pre-clearance. They haven't yet submitted their laws to either the Justice Department or the courts for approval.
Thirty-one states require voters to show some sort of ID but do not require photo IDs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Voters in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee must show photo IDs.
The Supreme Court may be asked to settle the voter ID debate, which intensified during the 2012 election cycle as state lawmakers - mostly Republicans - said photo ID laws are needed to combat voter fraud.
Opponents of the new state voter ID laws say voter fraud is rare. They denounced the laws as attempts to discourage turnout among minorities, who tend to back Democrats.
During the August trial, supporters of South Carolina voter ID law said they were careful to make sure it wouldn't disenfranchise minority voters. To accomplish that, they decided to make IDs free to people without a driver's license, passport, military ID or other acceptable form of identification.
Justice officials testified that 8.8 percent of registered voters in the state don't have any of the forms of identification required under R54, and most are black and elderly.
The law's critics also noted that provisional ballots, which people without a valid ID may cast under R54, aren't counted immediately and may be challenged.
South Carolina politicians offered mixed reactions to Wednesday's ruling.
Supporters like state House Speaker Bobby Harrell said it will ensure fair elections.
"In our society today, you need a photo ID to do just about anything, except vote," he said in a statement. "If we do not protect our voting right from fraud and abuse, we are not protecting the very ideals of democracy. This law will add integrity to our voting process and ensure that every voice is heard - and counted."
Critics such as Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, urged opponents to appeal to the nation's highest court.
The party "strongly disagrees with the court's opinion and is hopeful that the United States Supreme Court will resolve the differences between various voter ID cases around the country," Harpootlian said in a statement. "It's time for this state to find solutions to real problems. Republicans ... have spent millions in taxpayer funds on this cure in search of a disease."
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