Court Blocks S.C. Voter ID Law for 2012, But Clears It For the Future

A federal court in Washington today blocked South Carolina's Voter ID law from going into effect for the 2012 elections, but said it could go into effect for future elections.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina - because it has a history of discrimination - had to get approval for the law from federal officials in Washington DC.

A three judge panel of federal judges unanimously said today that it couldn't pre-clear the law "given the short time left before the 2012 elections," but said that the law was not enacted for a "discriminatory purpose" and could go into effect "beginning with any elections in 2013."

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said the ruling is a "major victory" for South Carolina. "It affirms our voter ID law is valid and constitutional under the Voting Rights Act," Wilson said. He said that the law does not discriminate and he would "work diligently to implement this law for all future elections."

Nancy Abudu, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project that had challenged the law, issued a statement saying, "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. This is a law that remains harmful regardless of when it is implemented."

The law requires South Carolinians who vote in person to present one of five forms of photo ID. But Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing for the court , emphasized that the law still permits citizens to use their non-photo voter registration card. The law he said, "provides that if a voter has a reasonable impediment that prevents the elector from obtaining photographic identification, the voter may complete an affidavit at the polling place attesting to his or her identity."

Kavanaugh wrote that the "reasonable impediment provision" will make it "far easier than some might have expected or feared for South Carolina voters with a non-photo registration card…to vote as they could under pre-existing law."

In a separate concurring opinion Judge John D. Bates, joined by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, took on critics of the continued necessity of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that applies only to states with a history of discrimination. "One cannot doubt the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act played here. Without the review process under the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina's voter photo ID law certainly would have been more restrictive."

In August a different panel of judges struck down Texas' Voter ID law, saying that the law " will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty." Today, Kavanaugh noted that the Texas law, unlike the South Carolina law, did not offer any kind of reasonable impediment or affidavit provision to accommodate voters who had not obtained a photo id.