The Justice Department on Friday rejected South Carolina's law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, saying it makes it harder for minorities to cast ballots. It was the first voter ID law to be refused by the federal agency in nearly 20 years.
The Obama administration said South Carolina's law didn't meet the burden under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory practices preventing blacks from voting. Tens of thousands of minorities might not be able to cast ballots under South Carolina's law because they don't have the right photo ID, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said.
South Carolina's law was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley. The state's attorney general vowed to fight the federal agency in court.
"Nothing in this act stops people from voting," said state Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is also a Republican.
South Carolina's new voter ID law requires voters to show poll workers a state-issued driver's license or ID card; a U.S. military ID; or a U.S. passport.
South Carolina is among five states that passed laws this year requiring some form of ID at the polls, while such laws were already on the books in Indiana and Georgia, whose law received approval from President George W. Bush's Justice Department. Indiana's law, passed in 2005, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.
Those new laws also allow voters without the required photo ID to cast provisional ballots, but the voters must return to a specific location with that ID within a certain time limit for their ballots to count.
Most of the laws have been promoted and approved by Republicans, who argue they are needed to avert voter fraud. Democrats say the measures are actually aimed at reducing minority votes for their candidates.
The Justice Department must approve changes to South Carolina's election laws under the federal Voting Rights Act because of the state's past failure to protect the voting rights of blacks. It is one of nine states that require the agency's approval. Neighboring North Carolina is also among those states.
The last time the Justice Department rejected a voter ID law was in 1994 when Louisiana passed a measure requiring a picture ID. After changes were made, it was approved by the agency.
Justice officials are reviewing Texas' new law. Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin also passed laws this year, but they are not under the agency's review.
South Carolina's law also required the state to determine how many voters lack state-issued IDs so that the Election Commission can work to make sure they know of law changes. The Department of Motor Vehicles will issue free state photo identification cards to those voters.
"Minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised," Perez wrote, noting that the numbers could be even higher since the data submitted by the state doesn't include inactive voters.
Haley said the decision was more proof President Obama is fighting conservative ideas like voter ID laws or immigration reform.
"The president and his bullish administration are fighting us every step of the way. It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th amendment rights," Haley said in a statement.
In a related story Friday, a federal judge in Washington has rejected a lawsuit filed by a conservative North Carolina legislator seeking to overturn a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Rep. Stephen A. LaRoque, a Republican, and four other men filed a lawsuit last year alleging that Section 5 -- the section requiring jurisdictions with a past history of racial discrimination to seek pre-approval from the Justice Department before making changes in voting procedures -- is unconstitutional.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder exercised that authority to nullify an effort by LaRoque's group, Kinston Citizens for Non-Partisan Voting, to amend the city's charter to remove party affiliation from the ballot in municipal elections. A majority of Kinston residents are black, and the group complained that straight-ticket voting favors Democrats.
U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates rejected the complaint, citing long established legal precedents that underpin the most recent 2006 revision of the Voting Rights Act.
"This Court declines to overturn that careful, well-supported judgment," Bates ruled.
LaRoque's attorneys immediately filed notice he plans to appeal. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a statement, the president of the North Carolina NAACP praised the court's ruling, calling it "a stand for justice and equality."
"Voting rights are under attack across the country," said the Rev. Dr. William J Barber, II, the state NAACP leader. "Fourteen states have already passed voter suppression laws that limit access to the polls and disproportionately impact minorities, poor people, young people, students and the elderly. Minority voting power is under attack through redistricting plans that marginalize minority voters, packing them into a few segregated districts so their influence is muted. We applaud the Court for recognizing the importance of the Voting Rights Act in protecting the right to vote."