The Department of Justice announced late Friday afternoon that it was rejecting South Carolina's new voter photo identification law because it discriminates against minority voters.
Under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, states with a history of low minority turnout must submit any changes to their voting laws to the DOJ or to a federal court for approval. South Carolina is one of the six states that passed laws in 2010 requiring voters to present a form of government-issued photo identification before they will be granted a ballot. These laws have all been pushed by new Republican majorities, which claim the restrictions are intended to combat widespread voter fraud that threatens the integrity of elections. But studies don't back up their claims, and voting-rights advocates allege that the ID laws are intended to suppress voter turnout, particularly among groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Even if that is not the intent, it would be the effect of these laws: Up to 25 percent of African-Americans lack the required form of ID, as well as 18 percent of young Americans and 15 percent of people with annual incomes below $35,000.
The Voting Rights Act does not require that the government show malicious intent. Instead, the law places the burden of proof on the states, which must demonstrate that their laws will not make it harder for minorities to vote than the current baseline law. DOJ's investigation showed that the law would have an outsized negative impact for minorities in South Carolina.
"According to the state's data, which compare the available date in the state's voter registration database with the available data in the state's DMV database, minority registered voters were nearly 20% more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised by Act R54's new requirements," wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. "Put differently, although non-white voters comprised 30.4% of the state's registered voters, they constituted 34.2% of registered voters who did not have the requisite DMV-issued identification to vote."
The ruling allows South Carolina to reformulate its law to pass muster. South Carolina also has the option to challenge DOJ's decision in a federal court—an action that is probably already in the works.
The DOJ decision comes shortly after a major address from Attorney General Eric Holder. He traveled to Austin, Texas, last week to argue against the Republicans’ claims of voter fraud and advocate a more liberalized voting system—including automatic voter registration—rather than the new restrictions.
Today’s DOJ ruling foretells trouble for at least two other states. The department is currently reviewing a Texas law passed earlier this year to mandate photo ID. DOJ has requested additional information from the state before making a ruling, but if the logic extends, Texas' law would also be shot down.
Mississippi voters approved a photo ID constitutional amendment through a referendum last month. The law is still being devised, but like Texas and South Carolina, Mississippi is included under Section Five. But rejecting Mississippi’s law might to be tougher for DOJ because it wasn’t passed by a Republican legislative majority.
Of the six states that passed new photo ID laws this year, three do not all of those fall under Section Five. In Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin, the DOJ would have to challenge the states for specifically creating laws to exclude minority voters.
Check back here on Monday for a more thorough explanation of what happened in South Carolina, and what the ruling means for the future of the country's voting laws.