Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups told a packed federal courtroom Monday that Republican legislators in South Carolina pushed a voter ID bill they knew would suppress the votes of African-Americans in the state, who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
In often tense exchanges with the lawyers, the measure’s chief authors, state Rep. Alan Clemmons and state Sen. Chip Campsen, both Republicans, disputed accusations that racially linked partisanship was behind the law and said the legislation was meant to combat election fraud.
“In the voters’ mind, they look at the whole basket of fraud,” Clemmons testified. “They see it as undermining their vote regardless of the variety of fraud.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law May 18, 2011. But the Justice Department blocked it as a violation of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that requires South Carolina and other states with Jim Crow pasts to submit all election changes to federal review.
South Carolina is suing Attorney General Eric Holder over his agency’s rejection of the voter ID law, which requires that residents of the state provide one of five types of photo identification in order to cast a ballot. They now can show a voter registration card with no photo.
Whichever way the three-judge panel hearing the case rules, it likely will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court also might decide the fate of a similar law in Texas after a federal trial last month in which a separate panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has yet to rule.
Lawyers opposing the South Carolina law displayed data from the State Election Commission that showed 178,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license, military tag or other form of photo ID required by the suspended law. The attorneys said that 36 percent of those without the approved identification are minority voters – the vast majority black and a larger share than their 30 percent share of the state’s overall population.
“Voting in South Carolina is racially polarized,” said Garrard Beeney, a New York lawyer representing civil rights groups that have intervened in the case to oppose the state law.
“If one impedes an African-American from voting, the overwhelming evidence is you are eliminating a vote for a Democrat,” Beeney said. “Race and politics in South Carolina are inextricably intertwined. It is purposeful discrimination, and it is unlawful under the Voting Rights Act.”
Christopher Bartolomucci, a former White House lawyer for President George W. Bush who is now with the Bancroft firm in Washington, argued that South Carolina has a moral right to ensure the legitimacy of its elections.
“The facts in this case will show that South Carolina’s voter ID law was enacted for important and legal purposes – to help prevent election fraud and to help increase public confidence in the electoral process,” Bartolomucci said.
Campsen, the South Carolina state senator who co-authored the law, testified for more than 4 1/2 hours, enduring 90 minutes of tough grilling from Beeney, a New York lawyer representing national interest groups that have intervened in the case against South Carolina. Among the groups are the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In one charged exchange, Beeney ridiculed the claim that blacks without acceptable photo identification would be protected by provisions in the South Carolina law allowing them to sign an affidavit and cast a provisional ballot.
Campsen acknowledged that affidavits must be notarized under separate state law and that notaries charge for their services.
“If you walk in (to a voting precinct) and you have to pay a notary, you don’t think that’s a poll tax?” Beeney asked in reference to one of the most odious of former Jim Crow laws.
“I don’t think they (notaries) would charge,” Campsen responded. “I don’t think it will be administered that way.”
Campsen was in the position of defending a law that Clemmons and other South Carolina House Republicans had stripped of key provisions Campsen had pushed.
Beeney prodded Campsen to acknowledge that those provisions – permitting early voting and the use of federal, state and municipal employee ID cards – would have softened the law’s impact on minority voters and drawn support from black legislators who, in the provisions’ absence, unanimously opposed it.
Campsen said that despite the failure to gain inclusion of such protections, he backed the bill that eventually emerged because governing requires compromise.
“You’re not a dictator,” Campsen said. “You also have a legislative reality you’re dealing with, with 45 other senators and 124 members of the House and rules and procedures that trip things up. That’s the nature of the democratic process.”
Campsen said the South Carolina measure was modeled after voter ID laws in Georgia and Indiana. He conceded through questioning that those states allowed early voting and the use of a broad range of photo identification, including expired driver’s licenses.
Beeney displayed a South Carolina map with bus routes. It showed that counties with the largest black populations have little or no public transportation that could take people without cars to local election offices to obtain new photo voter registration cards created by the law.
After Campsen said he was aware of the state’s inadequate transit system, Beeney pounced.
“You also know that African-Americans generally don’t vote for Republicans?” he asked Campsen.
“That’s what election returns say,” Campsen responded.