Prominent civil and voting rights groups have decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court a federal ruling upholding South Carolina’s voter ID law, saying such a challenge is unnecessary because the decision this week neuters the original law and cements new voter protections.
The decision by the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and other key groups could signal whether Wednesday’s ruling by a three-judge panel is appealed to the high court by the Justice Department, which worked closely with the outside groups during a federal trial that ended last month.
In the ruling, the judges overturned Attorney General Eric Holder’s rejection of the South Carolina voter ID law, but they warned state officials that it must be implemented leniently to allow voters without required photo IDs to cast ballots. They also said the law can’t be used in next month’s elections.
“We are quite pleased with this decision and currently have no intention of appealing it,” said Garrard Beeney, lead lawyer for the outside groups and for mainly black South Carolinians who said the law would disenfranchise them.
“South Carolina now has a photo ID law which allows anyone without a photo ID to vote in the same way they have in the past by simply stating the reason they did not get their photo ID,” Beeney said in an interview Friday.
Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said lawyers had not decided whether to appeal the ruling by the panel of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
Under the Voting Rights Act, which Holder had found the South Carolina law violated by disproportionately limiting African Americans’ access to the ballot box, all appeals of U.S. district court rulings bypass the federal appellate courts and go directly to the Supreme Court.
Beeney and other lawyers who opposed the state law said the three judges’ ruling codified three crucial protections for voters that were not in the original law as Gov. Nikki Haley enacted it in May 2011:
- Election officials must accept any alibi voters provide under the “reasonable impediment” clause allowing them to explain why they don’t have a driver’s license, passport or one of three other acceptable forms of photo ID;
- The affidavits signed by voters offering a reasonable impediment can be witnessed by poll workers or managers instead of notaries, and notaries cannot charge fees if their services are used;
- Provisional ballots cast by voters without photo IDs must be counted in all but very rare circumstances, with substantial burdens on the state to prove otherwise.
“In practice, the expansive reasonable impediment provision in (the law) means that every South Carolina citizen who has the non-photo voter registration card that could be used under pre-existing South Carolina law may still use that card to vote,” the judges wrote in their opinion.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at University of Richmond in Virginia, said the ruling includes strong language requiring South Carolina election officials to interpret and implement the law leniently, as they promised to do under tough questioning from the judges during the case’s closing arguments Sept. 24.
“There are numerous passages in the opinion that admonish state officials to ensure that voting will not be discouraged and that invite those concerned to seek court assistance if the law is not fairly applied,” Tobias said.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, head of the NAACP, said his group will watch closely to make sure that South Carolina officials implement the voter ID law in the liberal way mandated by the federal court.
“Politicians are on notice that erecting barriers will not be tolerated in our democracy,” Jealous said. “We will continue to monitor the law as it is enacted in 2013.”