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Partisan feud escalates over voter ID laws in South Carolina, other states

The Obama administration has blocked South Carolina's tough voter ID law, citing possible minority disenfranchisement. The spread of such laws is reviving a Democratic-Republican feud over voting rights.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2012

Brittany Coleman (l.) assisted Elizabeth Jenkins and Craig Williams as they prepared to cast their votes in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary in Charleston in 2008. South Carolina hoped to implement a new voter ID law in time for Election 2012, but the Obama administration recently blocked it.

Alice Keeney/AP/File



The Obama administration's recent decision to block a new voter ID law in South Carolina is fueling one of the biggest partisan debates of the day: Do stronger state voter ID laws really curtail the minority franchise?

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States have been on a tear of late to enact tighter controls on voting, including in South Carolina. Last year, 34 approved or considered tougher voting regulations, in a bid to ensure that voters who show up at the polls on Election Day are who they say they are.

Most of the new rules were approved by Republican-controlled legislatures, whose members say a crackdown on voter fraud is long overdue. But many Democrats decry the strictest rules – which won't allow a ballot to be counted unless that voter presents a state-approved photo ID – as a conspiracy to suppress turnout of their party's constituency, namely the poor, minorities, and college students.

Enter the US Department of Justice.

It moved in dramatic fashion last month to block South Carolina's voter ID law, refusing to give the state clearance to mandate that voters show a form of state-issued ID at the polls – DOJ's first such objection to a state voter ID law since 1994. The department, moreover, is poised to decide the fate of Texas's new voter ID law. Both states want to put the revisions in effect in time for the 2012 election.

At issue: Are the new laws retrogressive for minority voting rights under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – to wit, do the costs to voters of securing state IDs amount to a "poll tax"?

In announcing the South Carolina denial Dec. 23, Attorney General Eric Holder said federal oversight of voting in the South is still needed to "resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success." Like most Southern states, South Carolina must get sign-off from DOJ's Voting Rights Section to change its voting laws because of past suppression of the minority vote.

South Carolina has said it will appeal the Justice Department's action, and many legal analysts expect the case will quickly advance to the US Supreme Court.

"South Carolina is claiming it needs to use voter identification in the upcoming election to preserve the integrity of its electoral process. DOJ is blocking the state's law. This almost perfectly tees up the issue of federalism and state sovereignty" and a potential fast-track vote by the Supreme Court ahead of the 2012 election, writes political scientist Richard Hasen at the University of California, Irvine, in an article for Slate.

As recently as 2009, a majority of the justices stated in a Texas voting rights case that "the South has changed." In that case, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned assertions that Southerners are more tempted to discriminate at the polls than are Northerners. In the South Carolina case, the high court would be expected to weigh the interests of the federal government in protecting voting rights against the state's own sovereignty rights.


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