With the presidential election just a few weeks away, a panel of three federal judges this week questioned whether South Carolina should wait until 2014 to put its voter ID law into effect.
As attorneys for South Carolina delivered closing arguments in the trial over the validity of a new state law in the state, the judges in the case pondered whether the law would discriminate against minorities. Last December, the Justice Department refused to "preclear" the law — find it complies with the Voting Rights Act — so it could go into effect.
Voter identification laws have become a major point of contention in this year's presidential election, given the close race between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, a Democrat. These laws could prevent key constituencies from voting, making a difference for Democrats in tight races.
While supporters have pitched the laws as tools against voter fraud and to build confidence in the election system, the laws are in reality a Republican response to 2008's record turnout of African-American and Hispanic voters.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law in 2008, and Georgia's top court upheld that state's voter ID law. But a three-judge federal panel struck down Texas' voter ID law, and state courts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have blocked those states' voter ID laws -- for now. The Justice Department cleared New Hampshire's voter ID law earlier this year.
The South Carolina law requires voters to show a driver's license or other photo identification issued by the Motor Vehicles Department, a passport, military photo identification or a voter registration card with a photo on it.
Asking questions from the bench, the judges pointed out that if they allow South Carolina to implement the law, voters in the Palmetto State would not have much time before the November 6th elections to get the required forms of identification.
Democrats say the South Carolina law, and others like it, have a disproportionate effect on poor communities and among minorities and the elderly. Of course, these are voters who tend to vote for Democrats. But its interest in the case doesn't make the party wrong about these wrong-headed requirements.
Yes, we need to be concerned about voter fraud. At the same time, voter ID requirements are terribly reminiscent of literacy tests and the post-reconstruction requirement that African Americans, long denied an education in this country, sign their names before voting. Any court that examines these requirements is right to question the intent and implementation to ensure comportment with the civil right to vote.
A decision in the South Carolina case is expected in early October and could have national implications because it is expected to continue up to the U.S. Supreme Court.