Court Preclears South Carolina Voter ID Requirement

A three-judge panel precleared South Carolina’s new voter identification requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  Judge Kavanaugh wrote the opinion for the court, and summarized the case as follows:

This case concerns South Carolina’s new voter ID law, Act R54. The question presented is whether that new state law is lawful under the federal Voting Rights Act. As relevant here, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act bars state laws that have either the purpose or the effect “of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” 42 U.S.C. § 1973c(a). The effects prong of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act measures a State’s proposed new voting law against the benchmark of the State’s pre-existing law.

For several decades, South Carolina has had a voter ID law. Under the version of the law in effect since 1988, a voter must show a South Carolina driver’s license, DMV photo ID card, or non-photo voter registration card in order to vote. Under that pre-existing South Carolina law, a voter with a non-photo voter registration card need not show a photo ID in order to vote. As we will explain, South Carolina’s new law, Act R54, likewise does not require a photo ID to vote. Rather, under the expansive “reasonable impediment” provision in Act R54 – as authoritatively interpreted by the responsible South Carolina officials, an interpretation on which we base our decision today – voters with the non-photo voter registration card that sufficed to vote under preexisting law may still vote without a photo ID. Those voters simply must sign an affidavit at the polling place and list the reason that they have not obtained a photo ID.

In addition, Act R54 expands the kinds of photo IDs that may be used to vote – adding passports, military IDs, and new photo voter registration cards to the driver’s licenses and DMV photo ID cards already permitted by pre-existing law. Moreover, Act R54 minimizes the burden of obtaining a qualifying photo ID as compared to pre-existing law. The new law creates a new type of photo ID – namely, photo voter registration cards – which may be obtained for free at each county’s elections office. Also, under Act R54, DMV photo ID cards may be obtained at each county’s DMV office for free; those cards cost $5 under pre-existing law.

In short, Act R54 allows citizens with non-photo voter registration cards to still vote without a photo ID so long as they state the reason for not having obtained one; it expands the list of qualifying photo IDs that may be used to vote; and it makes it far easier to obtain a qualifying photo ID than it was under pre-existing law. Therefore, we conclude that the new South Carolina law does not have a discriminatory retrogressive effect, as compared to the benchmark of South Carolina’s pre-existing law. We also conclude that Act R54 was not enacted for a discriminatory purpose. Act R54 as interpreted thus satisfies Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and we grant pre-clearance for South Carolina to implement Act R54 for future elections beginning with any elections in 2013. As explained below, however, given the short time left before the 2012 elections, and given the numerous steps necessary to properly implement the law – particularly the new “reasonable impediment” provision – and ensure that the law would not have discriminatory retrogressive effects on African-American voters in 2012, we do not grant pre-clearance for the 2012 elections.

Over on the Election Law Blog, Rick Hasen finds Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion persuasive.