WASHINGTON – The federal trial over South Carolina's voter identification law got under way Monday with a state senator insisting his work on the law was aimed at fighting fraud and instilling public confidence in the election system.
During morning testimony, state Sen. George "Chip" Campsen III cited examples of fraud that he took into consideration while drafting early versions of South Carolina's law. These included vote buying, voter rolls indicating a woman who showed up at the polls had already voted, and press reports of voters being registered in both South Carolina and North Carolina.
But under questioning from Justice Department attorney Anna Baldwin, Campsen, a Republican, said the examples he gave did not involve the type of fraud that requiring photo identification would address.
"None of the examples you gave in your testimony involved incidents of impersonation?" Baldwin asked.
"Correct," Campsen answered. He also said he could not find cases of voter impersonation in South Carolina, but added that the state lacks the tools to root them out.
The Justice Department rejected South Carolina's law, passed last year, which requires specific photo identification be shown in order to vote. The department decided the law violates Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters. South Carolina's voter photo ID law was subject to approval from the Justice Department because of its history of racial discrimination.
South Carolina's law was the first voting law to be refused federal clearance in nearly 20 years. South Carolina responded with a lawsuit in the hopes of reinstating the measure.
Several states have passed voter identification laws contending the need to fight fraud and build public confidence in the integrity of elections. But the timing of those measures has Democrats, civil rights and minority advocacy groups arguing that the intent is to suppress the vote of blacks and Latinos, students and elderly who tend to vote Democrat.
Passage of the laws follows record turnouts by blacks and Latinos in the 2008 presidential election, helping to put President Barack Obama in the White House.
Chris Bartolucci, a private attorney hired for South Carolina, rejected suggestions the South Carolina law was a reaction to the 2008 elections.
"Testimony we will present and evidence we will show, will refute that," Bartolucci said.
Campsen and the House author of the voter ID bill, state Rep. Alan Clemmons, both denied they intended to racially discriminate with the law. They said their intent was to create a way to detect identification fraud and deter it.
"In the minds of most people fraud is fraud. When you are working to fix one area of fraud, it in their mind bolsters the entire system," Clemmons said.
Attorneys for South Carolina spent much of the day walking witnesses through the law's legislative history to show Democrats and Republicans had worked together on earlier versions.
Testimony showed the Senate version had included as much as 12 early voting days and identification rules allowed using federal, state and county employee identification cards to vote.
"All of these things were in the bill and all of these things make it easier to vote," said Garrard Beeney, a private attorney representing several groups opposing the South Carolina law.
The law South Carolina hopes to enact is far more limiting. It requires voters to show a driver's license, a state ID issued by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, a voter identification card with photo, a passport or a U.S. military ID with photo. South Carolina does not allow early voting days without an excuse for being unable to vote on election days.
Beeney said the benefits of voter ID laws are small and the consequences high because of the people it excludes from the polls.
The people it will hurt, mostly minorities, do not live in the world of the courtroom, Beeney said. They live in a world of lower education levels, greater poverty and limited access to transportation, he said.
The testimony before a three-judge panel is expected to continue for a week. Closing arguments are scheduled for Sept. 24, pushing a decision close to the Nov. 6 elections.