Carded at the Polls

One consequence of Republican victories last November has been an onslaught of state legislation to require voters to show photo identification at polling places. This push builds on GOP efforts over the past decade to tighten ID requirements; at least 18 states have enacted more stringent rules since 2003, including, most recently, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Last week, 16 U.S. senators signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the Justice Department to investigate whether the new ID requirements comply with federal law. Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a Democrat, is gathering signatures on a similar letter from House members and held a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill with civil-rights leaders, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to draw attention to her effort.

Research shows that voter fraud is very rare, so these laws are best understood as an underhanded form of partisan warfare. The roughly 11 percent of citizens, or 20 million Americans, who lack government ID are mostly nonwhite, young, or aged -- groups that tend to vote Democratic. It is no exaggeration to say that new voter-ID laws could tip next year's presidential election since such rules have been enacted or are pending in swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where electoral margins are often razor thin.

Given the clear evidence that voter-ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, opponents say they may be a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department has a big say over voting procedures, especially in the states -- primarily in the South -- covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (when the act was passed in 1967, Section 5 applied to any jurisdiction with less than 50 percent turnout in the 1960 election, though some of these areas have since been taken off the list). The sign-on letter to Holder that Fudge is circulating notes that "Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires preclearance by the Department when there is an attempt to change any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting in covered jurisdictions." Fudge and others think that the Justice Department has strong grounds for investigating whether the ID laws are discriminatory or designed with "unlawful intent."

Some state legislators are also asking the Justice Department to scrutinize ID laws. Especially powerful are appeals coming from lawmakers in Southern states where African American senior citizens who lack ID can still remember the days when they couldn't vote because of Jim Crow.

South Carolina Senator John Land, who is 70, certainly remembers those days (although he himself is white) and so do many of his colleagues in that state's legislature. Land has called the ID law there discriminatory and is seeking a meeting with the Justice Department to explain why. "For many in the Caucus, this legislation marks a return to the state's past of disenfranchising voters," Land wrote in a letter to Holder.

The South Carolina law is shaping up as a crucial test of whether the Justice Department will take a more critical stance toward ID rules. The state's new ID measure is one of the most stringent in the country, requiring voters to bring a state-issued drivers' license or a federal identification card to the polls. Meeting that requirement won't be easy for the many residents of South Carolina who don't drive or work for the federal government. In the Columbia area alone, according to The Post and Courier, some 25,000 voters don't have ID, and statewide, more than 200,000 residents may be affected. If the new rules are enacted, one result is likely to be widespread confusion at the polls -- not to mention the spectacle of African Americans being turned away from the ballot box in a state where the confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the statehouse.

Governor Nikki Haley signed the new ID law in May, saying it was "another great day in South Carolina." But the Justice Department needs to give clearance to the law before it can take effect. Another ID law signed in May by Governor Rick Perry of Texas also must get preclearance from the department.

The Justice Department has given the okay to other restrictive ID laws in Section 5 states -- most recently in Georgia -- so the odds don't seem high that it will block the latest wave of laws. But rarely has there been such a concerted effort by members of Congress to voice concern about the department's rulings in this area.

With political pressure mounting and the election approaching, just maybe Attorney General Holder will do more to push back against what some advocates are calling a "war on democracy."

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