The Justice Department on Friday blocked a new South Carolina law that would require voters to present photo identification, saying the law would disproportionately suppress turnout among eligible minority voters.
The move was the first time since 1994 that the department has exercised its powers under the Voting Rights Act to block a voter identification law. It followed a speech this month by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that signaled an aggressive stance in reviewing a wave of new state voting restrictions, largely enacted by Republicans in the name of fighting fraud.
In a letter to the South Carolina government, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney for civil rights, said that allowing the new requirement to go into effect would have “significant racial disparities.”
He cited data supplied by the state as showing that there were “81,938 minority citizens who are already registered to vote and who lack” such identification, and that these voters are nearly 20 percent more likely be “disenfranchised” by the change than white voters.
South Carolina now faces the choice of dropping the proposed change or asking a federal court in the District of Columbia to approve the law.
Richard L. Hasen, an election law specialist at the University of California, Irvine, predicted on his Election Law Blog that the state would go to court, which could set up a “momentous” decision in the Supreme Court on whether a part of the Voting Rights Act that prevents states like South Carolina from changing their voting rules without federal permission is unconstitutional.
Gov. Nikki Haley denounced the decision, accusing the Obama administration of “bullying” the state.
“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,” she said in a statement.