The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday rejected as discriminatory a South Carolina law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. The action by the department’s civil rights division, coupled with Attorney General Eric Holder’s call 10 days earlier in Austin for more aggressive federal review of such laws, appears to increase the likelihood that the Texas version could meet a similar fate. Texas Republicans criticized the decision, calling it improper and vowing to defend Texas’ voter ID law.
The Justice Department said the South Carolina law makes it harder for members of minority groups to cast ballots, to the point that tens of thousands of them might be turned away at the polls because they lack the required photo ID. The law requires a state-issued driver’s license or ID card, a U.S. military ID or a U.S. passport.
The Texas law, which was signed by Gov. Rick Perry in May, requires voters to show a valid government-issued photo ID, such as a Texas driver’s license, Department of Public Safety identification card, state concealed handgun license, U.S. military ID or U.S. passport. Like the South Carolina law, the Texas law needs approval from the Justice Department under the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Such “pre-clearance” to ensure that minority political power is not harmed is required in states that failed to protect minority voting rights in the past.
Three other states that enacted voter ID laws this year — Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin — do not need Justice Department approval. Similar laws are already on the books in Indiana and Georgia. Georgia’s law was approved by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department, and Indiana’s law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said he would fight the Justice Department in federal court. “Nothing in this act stops people from voting,” he said.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said nonwhites are about a third of South Carolina’s registered voters and are a third of registered voters who don’t have the right ID. “Minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack (Department of Motor Vehicles)-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised,” he wrote.
Supporters of voter ID laws say they are needed to combat voter fraud. Critics say they discriminate against minority and low-income voters, including many such voters who tend to vote Democratic.