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In voter ID case, South Carolina fights back against Obama administration

The Justice Department has blocked a South Carolina law requiring all voters to have government-issued photo IDs, saying it would be discriminatory. The state asked a three-judge panel to intervene Wednesday, saying that the Obama administration is out of line.

By Staff writer / February 8, 2012

Live Oak precinct workers check in a voter at the Live Oak Grocery outside of Loris, S.C., during the South Carolina primary. The Justice Department has blocked a South Carolina law that would require all voters to present a government-issued photo ID.

Randall Hill/REUTERS/File

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South Carolina’s attorney general is asking a three-judge panel in Washington to reverse a Justice Department decision blocking the state’s new voter ID law. Obama administration officials said the state law would discriminate against African-American voters.

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In court papers filed on Wednesday, Washington lawyer Paul Clement and state Attorney General Alan Wilson requested that a three-judge panel be appointed to decide whether South Carolina’s voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The litigation sets up another election-year flashpoint between the Obama administration and state governments over the balance of federal-state power.

Among the suits: 

  • An ongoing battle over newly drawn congressional districts in Texas.
  • A US Supreme Court appeal involving a state immigration law in Arizona.
  • The 26-state Supreme Court challenge to the president’s health-care reform law.

The same lawyer, former US Solicitor General Clement, is involved in all of these cases.

Fifteen states have enacted laws requiring voters to show photo ID prior to casting a ballot. South Carolina’s ID law was enacted last year. It requires prospective voters to present a driver’s license or some other form of government-issued photo identification before being permitted to cast a ballot. The measure requires the state to provide registered voters, upon request, with a Department of Motor Vehicles-issued photo ID free of charge.

Opponents of the measure say the new photo requirement would cause an inordinate hardship on minority voters and potentially erode the political clout of African-Americans in South Carolina.

Because South Carolina has a long history of racial discrimination in voting, it must submit any changes in its election laws to Washington for pre-clearance. The Voting Rights Act forbids states such as South Carolina from enacting any provision that would “lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.”

What that means in plain English is that the state may not pass laws with either the purpose or the effect of undermining the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority.

The photo ID issue is a familiar topic of debate between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans generally favor photo ID laws as an effective means to discourage voter fraud. Democrats generally oppose such measures because they say it can lead to disenfranchisement of certain potential voters who don’t have an acceptable government-issued photo ID.

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