Federal judges grilled attorneys Monday over South Carolina’s controversial voter-ID law, which opponents said would disenfranchise thousands of minorities but supporters said would have ample protection against discrimination at the polls. During closing arguments in a six-day federal trial over the law, the three-judge panel challenged attorneys for the state over election officials’ shifting stances on how they’d implement it, and the judges asked opposing attorneys why they’re rejecting clear efforts by those officials to soften possible harmful impact on African-American voters. The South Carolina law, which Attorney General Eric Holder blocked after its May 2011 enactment, has national implications that pit a state’s legal right to prevent electoral fraud against the federal government’s mandate under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure equal access to the polls for minority Americans.
The embattled law is one of more than a dozen that mainly Republican-majority state legislatures have passed in recent years. It would require a voter to show one of five forms of identification: a driver’s license, a photo ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, a passport, military ID or a voter registration card with a photo issued by the local elections office. The law’s foes say it would affect South Carolina blacks disproportionately because 71,000 registered African-Americans lack any of the five IDs – a relatively bigger share than white voters who are without them – and those black voters would have more trouble obtaining acceptable photo IDs because they’re poorer overall and live predominantly in counties that have little or no public transportation.
Garrard Beeney, an attorney for civil rights groups and potentially disenfranchised voters who oppose the law, ridiculed testimony by Marci Andino, the executive director of the South Carolina State Election Commission, as contradictory. He said the state’s thousands of precinct volunteers would be left to interpret whether someone could vote without proper ID by claiming a “reasonable impediment” to getting one, as permitted by one of the law’s key clauses. U.S. District Judge John Bates pointed out that South Carolina officials had promised to distribute instructions for implementing the law. Beeney responded that the law is irreparably flawed: Poll volunteers, he said, are being asked to implement it in ways that it doesn’t allow or that other laws prohibit.