Wednesday, December 28, 2011

South Carolina and Voter ID: When Politics Drives Law Enforcement

Attorney General Eric Holder put a lump of coal in South Carolina’s Christmas stocking on Dec. 23 when he objected to the state’s new voter ID law. By ignoring inconvenient facts and clear legal precedent, Holder showed once again that politics and ideology—not the rule of law—drive his law enforcement decisions. Given the power of the Justice Department and its potential for abuse, this should worry all Americans, particularly when that abuse has the potential to affect the outcome of next year’s election.

South Carolina passed a voter ID law that is almost identical to those implemented by Georgia and Indiana six years ago. It requires a voter to present a South Carolina driver’s license or other photo ID—a passport, military ID, or a voter registration card with a photo issued by South Carolina election officials. Even if a voter shows up at a polling place without an acceptable ID, he can still vote a provisional ballot that will be counted if he brings an ID to election officials before the results are certified. South Carolina’s law is more lenient than either Georgia’s or Indiana’s. If a voter has a religious objection or a “reasonable impediment” that prevents him from getting a free photo ID, then the voter can simply fill out an affidavit in which he outlines his objection or impediment and swears that he is who he says he is. His provisional ballot will then be automatically counted unless local election officials have evidence that “the affidavit is false.”

This new ID requirement is a common-sense reform that can easily be met by voters regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status. However, South Carolina is one of the few states still covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a civil rights-era law that requires the state to get “preclearance” of any voting change from the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court in the District of Columbia. Section 5 was originally passed in 1965 as a five-year emergency provision to remedy widespread, systematic discrimination in the South. Yet it has been frequently renewed—most recently in 2006—even though the official discrimination it was intended to stop has long since disappeared except for isolated incidents.

South Carolina made the grievous error of submitting the state’s new voter ID law to the Justice Department for review, rather than going straight to federal court where it would get an impartial hearing. The history of this Justice Department over the past three years, from the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case to the refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, has been one in which raw politics and ideology are driving law enforcement decisions.

Holder’s flawed outlook on voter ID laws, as he outlined it recently in a speech at the LBJ Library in Texas, matches the racial paranoia of the Democratic National Committee and the NAACP, each of which claims erroneously that voter ID laws are an attempt to suppress minority votes comparable to Jim Crow. This is a historically preposterous idea. But there was no way that South Carolina was going to get a fair, objective, and nonpartisan review of its voter ID law from this Justice Department, particularly given the parallel views of the radicals hired into career civil service positions within the Civil Rights Division.

In its objection letter to South Carolina, the Justice Department wrongly claims that voter ID would have a discriminatory impact on “non-white” voters. To get to that conclusion, however, DOJ manipulated the statistics to claim that “minority registered voters were nearly 20% more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised by” the law’s requirements. This is not a legitimate claim, given the actual data and the provisions of the law.

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