A panel of federal judges on Wednesday cleared South Carolina’s controversial voter identification law but ruled that it cannot be implemented until after the November election.
The D.C.-based panel ruled that the law does not discriminate against minorities and may go into effect in 2013. The panel said it did not want to rush the implementation process ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
The ruling is a blow to the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts to block voter identification laws that leaders say violate the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“At first blush, one might have thought South Carolina had enacted a very strict photo ID law,” the judges wrote in their ruling. “Much of the initial rhetoric surrounding the law suggested as much. But that rhetoric was based on a misunderstanding of how the law would work.”
The law expands the type of IDs accepted to vote, including the creation of a photo voter registration card, and it allows citizens with a non-photo voter registration card to still enter the ballot booth as long as he or she states a reason for not obtaining one.
“We conclude that the new South Carolina law does not have a discriminatory retrogressive effect,” the judges wrote.
The panel of three wrote that South Carolina state leaders still need to be vigilant in the law’s implementation in 2013.
“We are fully aware… that what looks good on paper may fall apart in practice,” the judges wrote. “We expect and anticipate that South Carolina state, county, and local officials will endeavor to prevent such slippage. Given the concerns powerfully expressed at trial by several African-American legislators in South Carolina… proper implementation of this law will be important, both for legal reasons and to maintain South Carolina citizens’ confidence in the fair and impartial administration of elections.”
In August, the department won its challenge to a similar law in Texas, which some analysts thought might foretell the results of future battles in the courtroom.
The case was argued for South Carolina by a team of lawyers, including former Justice Department Voting Section Chief Christopher Coates. Coates took center stage in a controversy that grew out of the Bush-Era Civil Rights Division — a time of intense internal turmoil over how to enforce voting laws. He was pushed out of his post in 2009 following the controversial filing of a lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party, alleging voter intimidation. The department eventually dismissed the suit.
Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement that the Attorney General plans to monitor the law’s implementation closely.
“The Department of Justice is pleased that the court has denied preclearance of the South Carolina law for the 2012 elections. With regard to future elections, the Department welcomes the court’s agreement that South Carolina’s law required broad modifications in order to respond to the serious concerns raised by the Attorney General that the law as written would exclude minority voters. We also agree with the court’s observation that this shows the continuing need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The court’s preclearance of the law for future elections is expressly conditioned on South Carolina’s binding promise that all qualified voters without photo ID will still be allowed to vote without additional burden. If the law — as modified by South Carolina during the course of the trial — takes effect for future elections, the Attorney General intends to monitor its implementation closely to ensure compliance with the court’s order.”