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SC Voter ID Law Rejected By Justice Department

AP | 12/29/2011, 1:43 p.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Justice Department on Friday rejected South Carolina's law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, saying it makes it harder for minorities to cast ballots. It was the first voter ID law to be refused by the federal agency in nearly 20 years.

The Obama administration said South Carolina's law didn't meet the burden under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory practices preventing blacks from voting. Tens of thousands of minorities in South Carolina might not be able to cast ballots under South Carolina's law because they don't have the right photo ID, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said.

South Carolina's law was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley. The state's attorney general vowed to fight the federal agency in court.

"Nothing in this act stops people from voting," said Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is also a Republican.

South Carolina's new voter ID law requires voters to show poll workers a state-issued driver's license or several other alternative forms of photo identification.

"The U.S. Department of Justice today blocked implementation of a new law that would require South Carolina voters to present a photo ID in order to vote," the state Election Commission said in a statement late Friday. "Therefore, ID requirements for voting will not change at this time.'

South Carolina is among five states that passed laws this year requiring some form of ID at the polls, while such laws were already on the books in Indiana and Georgia, whose law received approval from President George W. Bush's Justice Department. Indiana's law, passed in 2005, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.

Those new laws also allow voters without the required photo ID to cast provisional ballots, but the voters must return to a specific location with that ID within a certain time limit for their ballots to count.

Most of the laws have been promoted and approved by Republicans, who argue they are needed to avert voter fraud. Democrats say the measures are actually aimed at reducing minority votes for their candidates.

The Justice Department must approve changes to South Carolina's election laws under the federal Voting Rights Act because of the state's past failure to protect the voting rights of blacks. It is one of nine states that require the agency's approval.

The last time the Justice Department rejected a voter ID law was in 1994 when Louisiana passed a measure requiring a picture ID. After changes were made, it was approved by the agency.

Justice officials are reviewing Texas' new law. Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin also passed laws this year, but they are not under the agency's review.

South Carolina's law also required the state to determine how many voters lack state-issued IDs so that the Election Commission can work to make sure they know of law changes. The Department of Motor Vehicles will issue free state photo identification cards to those voters.

"Minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised," Perez wrote, noting that the numbers could be even higher since the data submitted by the state doesn't include inactive voters.

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