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South Carolina Sues Justice Department For Blocking Its Voter ID Law

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks last month in Columbia, S.C. The state is now suing Holder over the Justice Department's decision to reject its new voter ID law.
Mary Ann Chastain
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks last month in Columbia, S.C. The state is now suing Holder over the Justice Department's decision to reject its new voter ID law.

In the escalating fight over voter identification laws, South Carolina has filed a federal lawsuit to overturn a Justice Department decision blocking the state's new photo ID requirement.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, representing his state in the case, said in the complaint filed Tuesday that the law "will not disenfranchise any potential South Carolina voter," as the Justice Department contends.

The lawsuit further argues:

"The covered voting changes in Act R54 [Voter ID law] do not and will not prohibit any voter in South Carolina from voting for or electing his or her preferred candidate of choice."

"... South Carolina's photo identification law ... merely imposes on voters a responsibility to obtain an approved photo identification card and to bring it to the polls unless one of the exemptions ... applies."

Laws requiring people to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls have become hotly debated this election year, as many of them have been enacted in presidential battleground states.

Supporters, mainly Republicans, claim the laws prevent election fraud. Opponents, primarily Democrats and voting rights activists, say that fraud is rare, and that the true intent of such laws is to suppress turnout among minority and other voters who tend to favor Democratic candidates.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged to thoroughly scrutinize such election laws, in remarks taken by South Carolina officials and other voter ID supporters as a signal that he would oppose them.

South Carolina, along with eight other states, passed the law last year. In December, the Justice Department rejected South Carolina's new law, saying it would create unlawful barriers to participating in elections and "reduce minority voting strength across the state."

The Justice Department based its decision in part on findings that African-Americans, in particular, are far less likely than whites to own state-issued photo IDs and would face undue obstacles to obtain them.

Wilson refuted the contention in a statement. Citing an allowance under the law for people lacking IDs to sign an affidavit (attesting to eligibility) before voting at the polls, Wilson said:

"Nothing in this law prevents anyone from voting if they cannot immediately show a valid photo identification."

However, such votes may not be counted. Voters lacking ID use a provisional ballot, which only will be counted if the voters return within a set number of days with valid photo ID.

South Carolina, in effect, is taking on the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The measure mandates Justice Department approval of any changes to election laws in some or all parts of 16 states, including South Carolina, because of their histories of racially discriminatory voting practices.

Increasingly, a number of jurisdictions in the South have brought lawsuits seeking to be freed from the mandates, arguing that local election processes no longer inhibit minority voter participation. And Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, writing in a 2009 opinion, suggested continued enforcement of Voting Rights Act provisions "must be justified by current needs."

Another court battle looms over a similar photo ID law passed in Texas. In response to questions raised by the Justice Department, Texas has asked a federal court in Washington for clearance to enact its law.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Dade
Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.