COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Justice Department on Friday rejected South Carolina's law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, saying it makes it harder for minorities to cast ballots. It was the first voter ID law to be refused by the federal agency in nearly 20 years.
The Obama administration said South Carolina's law didn't meet the burden under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory practices preventing blacks from voting. Tens of thousands of minorities in South Carolina might not be able to cast ballots under South Carolina's law because they don't have the right photo ID, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said.
South Carolina's law was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley. The state's attorney general vowed to fight the federal agency in court.
"Nothing in this act stops people from voting," said Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is also a Republican.
South Carolina's new voter ID law requires voters to show poll workers a state-issued driver's license or ID card; a U.S. military ID or a U.S. passport.
South Carolina is among five states that passed laws this year requiring some form of ID at the polls, while 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.
The Justice Department must approve changes to South Carolina's election laws under the federal Voting Rights Act because of the state's past failure to protect the voting rights of blacks. It is one of nine states that require the agency's approval.
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's law also required the state to determine how many voters lack state-issued IDs so that the Election Commission can work to make sure they know of law changes. The Department of Motor Vehicles will issue free state photo identification cards to those voters.
"Minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised," Perez wrote, noting that the numbers could be even higher since the data submitted by the state doesn't include inactive voters.
The number of active and inactive voters that should be used to determine how many people would be affected by the law has been in dispute. Department of Motor Vehicles executive director Kevin Shwedo said the state Election Commission knew it was using inaccurate data when it released reports showing nearly 240,000 active and inactive voters lacked driver's licenses or ID cards.
Shwedo sent the state's attorney general an analysis showing that 207,000 of those voters live in other states, allowed their ID cards to expire, probably have licenses with names that didn't match voter records or were dead. He said the commission created "artificially high numbers to excite the masses."
A spokesman for the Election Commission did not respond to an email message Friday. Earlier in the week, commission officials said the agency will eliminate nearly 60,000 deceased people and individuals whose names didn't match DMV records.
Haley said the decision was more proof President Obama is fighting conservative ideas like voter ID laws or immigration reform.
"The president and his bullish administration are fighting us every step of the way. It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th amendment rights," Haley said in a statement.
South Carolina ACLU executive director Victoria Middleton applauded the Justice Department's decision, saying the "misguided" law represented "a dramatic setback to voting rights in our state and we are pleased to see it stopped in its tracks."
The decision also was welcomed by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who planned to talk about how voter ID laws are a plot by conservatives to keep blacks from voting in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., next week. He said the laws are like modern day poll taxes, targeting elderly people that can't afford to get IDs and students.
"We're fighting wars for democracy overseas and we're fighting democracy at home," Jackson said. "What a contradiction."