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A Justice Department spokeswoman said DOJ was pleased that the court blocked the law from going into effect next month and noted that the law underwent "broad modifications" during the course of the trial to allow it to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called the ruling "a major victory for South Carolina and its elections process."
"It affirms our voter ID law is valid and constitutional under the Voting Rights Act. The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise; they ensure integrity at the ballot box," he said in a statement.
The Washington, D.C.-based panel concluded that the voter ID law was "not enacted for a discriminatory purpose" and precleared the law for any election in 2013. But it blocked the state from implementing the law this year "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."
That provision of the law — allowing voters to still cast a ballot by telling poll workers about a "reasonable impediment" that prevented them from obtaining photo identification — played an important role in the decision. The court ruled that state and county officials "may not review the reasonableness of the voter's explanation" for why they couldn't obtain photo ID.
The court said that the "key unanswered question" at the time the law was passed was how the state would enact the provision. The court said it was satisfied with the interpretations of South Carolina's elections officials.
"At first blush, one might have thought South Carolina had enacted a very strict photo ID law," the court ruled. "Much of the initial rhetoric surrounding the law suggested as much. But that rhetoric was based on a misunderstanding of how the law would work. Act R54, as it has been authoritatively construed by South Carolina officials, does not have the effects that some expected and some feared."
The court said "a voter may assert any of the myriad other reasons for not procuring one of the required photo IDs, such as: I had to work, I was unemployed and looking for work, I didn't have transportation to the county office, I didn't have enough money to make the trip, I was taking care of my children, I was helping my family, I was busy with my charitable work, and so on."
While the three judge panel said it was "troubled" by a racist email exchange between a South Carolina legislator and a constituent regarding the voter ID law, it found that the constituent and the legislator's failure to denounce the racist viewpoint does not speak for the South Carolina's legislature or governor.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division blocked South Carolina's voter ID law in December, finding that the state's own data showed that registered non-white voters were 20 percent more likely than white voters to lack state-issued photo identification. South Carolina challenged the Justice Department's decision in court.
The law that South Carolina presented to the panel of federal judges was significantly watered-down from how many interpreted the law because the state weakened several components of the law through administrative action. Besides the expanded definition of a reasonable impediment, South Carolina also waved the requirement for a notary to sign such affidavits, allowing poll workers to witness them, and banned notaries from charging for their services.
"Ultimately the law that the court has approved for 2013 and beyond is a huge departure from the bill enacted by the South Carolina legislature," J. Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge John Bates, a George W. Bush appointee, agreed that South Carolina's law had changed, writing in a concurring opinion that an "evolutionary process" had led to the final version of the law. Bates, joined by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, wrote that it was "understandable" that the Justice Department "would raise serious concerns about South Carolina's voter photo ID law as it then stood." He said Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had played a "vital function" in the ultimate voter ID law, writing that it served as a "deterrent" that prevented South Carolina from implementing a stricter version of the law.
Still, some civil rights organizations were unhappy that the court precleared South Carolina's voter ID law in future elections.
"We're glad that thousands of voters who faced being denied access to the polls will get to vote next month, but are concerned about what lies ahead," Nancy Abudu, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "This is a law that remains harmful regardless of when it is implemented."
A separate panel of federal judges tossed out a voter ID law in Texas in late August, finding the law would impose "strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor." DOJ did not object to a less stringent voter ID law passed in Virginia and cleared a voter ID law in New Hampshire.
South Carolina's voter ID law, the three judge panel concluded, was "less stringent" than the laws which have been blocked.