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Voter ID law stopped in South Carolina, subject of debate elsewhere

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WASHINGTON – South Carolina sticks out from the pack of 15 states now requiring, or seeking to require, voters to present photographic identification before casting their ballots.

As soon as South Carolina enacted a bill to require photo identification, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder rejected it.

J. David Woodard of Clemson University said this isn’t that surprising. In keeping with  Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlaws voter discrimination, the Justice Department reviews legislation in states with a poor history of voter freedom. South Carolina is one such state.

Forcing potential voters to present identification at the polls, proponents of the new voter ID bills argue voter fraud could be cut from existence. Opponents cry discrimination.

“It’s really hard to make a case that it’s discriminatory on its face,” Woodard said. “If it was somebody else doing this, it would probably be OK, but it’s South Carolina and they lack a little bit of credibility.”

Still, many Carolinians are upset over the Justice Department’s actions, and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson sued Holder.

In the meantime, the debate lingers over whether the new laws, in South Carolina or elsewhere, actually prevent fraud without promoting discrimination.

A National Press Club debate last week between the Heritage Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union held this question as a central theme.

The idea behind these laws, said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of Heritage’s Civil Justice Reform Initiative, is to prevent fraudulent voting. He said these laws not only avert double voting and voting under a false name, but they also keep dead people from reappearing come election time.

As an added advantage, he said it works to “prevent illegal aliens from registering and voting.”

“Under federal law, if you want to get a job you have to authenticate your identity,” Spakovsky said. “That is no different than what states want to do in the voting context.”

While proponents such as Spakovsky might label the issue cut-and-dried, his debate opponent argued the new laws take voter freedom back to the days of “poll taxes and literacy tests.” 

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said there are few documented cases of voter fraud, and the new laws promote further class and racial discrimination.

“More than 21 million Americans of voting age lack documentation that would satisfy these photo ID laws,” Murphy said. “These Americans are disproportionately low income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly and disabled voters.”

Some states have already made these IDs available for free, but Murphy said, “Many of these Americans cannot afford to pay for the required documents needed to secure a government issued photo ID.” These other documents, such as birth certificates, can be costly and time consuming to reproduce. The greater the difficulty, the less likely it is voters will try. 

Rather than focusing on minor amounts of voter fraud, Murphy said attention ought to be placed on other election issues such as poll location and voting hours. It is hard for low-wage, hourly workers to take time off to vote, she said. This is where the true fraud happens.

Woodard said that “both sides seem to take it to the extreme.” Those on left say they want to prevent any discrimination, while those on the right argue their opponents want “illegal immigrants to vote,” he said.

“Any time you put up some requirements, you’re going to limit participation,” Woodard said. “Participation is so much a function of a dozen of different things, besides the law, that you can’t say it’s just the law that affects this.”

Having worked as an election official for more than 20 years and as a Republican campaign consultant, Woodard said he has come across minor issues of possible fraud. These are not widespread, but do occur – likely at the hands of incompetent county officials, he said.

As for whether the law will be reinstated for South Carolina’s vote in November, he said, “I don’t think really think so. It’s only going to affect election rhetoric as far as the election itself.”

“I mean, let’s face it – I think we all know how South Carolina is going to go in November,” he said.

Reach reporter Elijah Herington at heringtone@shns.com or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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