Justice Department Puts Hold On South Carolina Voter ID Law

After months of protest from minority groups, voting rights advocates, and Democratic U.S. senators, the Justice Department declined to pre-clear South Carolina’s new voter identification law Monday, putting it on hold until South Carolina can provide further information on the law, the Greenville News reported Tuesday:

South Carolina’s new voter ID law will be on hold until the state can provide more information to the federal Department of Justice, which says it needs more specifics to ensure that the new law doesn’t disenfranchise voters. […]

In a letter to the attorney general, the voting rights chief asked questions including how many registered voters don’t have a state driver’s license or ID and how they will be notified of the new law’s requirements, what types of evidence will be accepted to prove a voter’s identity and how those who can’t reasonably secure an ID will still be allowed to vote.

Under Section Five of Voting Rights Act (VRA), southern states like South Carolina must have election laws pre-cleared, meaning the laws cannot take effect until the Justice Department approves them on grounds that they will not discriminate against minority voters. By putting it on hold, Justice is asking South Carolina for further proof that its law will not disenfranchise the 178,000 voters in the state who do not have valid IDs — a disproportionate share of whom are racial minorities.

South Carolina’s Attorney General’s Office insists they have the answers to those questions, but as Ian Millhiser has noted, it’s unlikely that any of the voter ID laws taking effect in Republican-controlled states could survive the scrutiny of the VRA, which forbids both laws that specifically target minority voters and those that have a greater impact on minority voters than others.

Instead of fitting laws into the VRA, however, Republicans are beginning to target the law itself. Conservatives on the Supreme Court weakened the law in 2009, making it easier for districts to “bail out” of the Section Five pre-clearance requirement, and the state of Arizona recently filed a lawsuit challenging Section Five altogether. The Court’s actions in 2009 hint that it may go even farther if it gets a chance to rule on Arizona’s challenge to the law’s constitutionality. If the Court strikes down Section Five, discriminatory voter ID laws could still be challenged in a federal lawsuit, they just wouldn’t be subject to pre-clearance.