South Carolina’s voter ID law was upheld because top state officials promised a federal court that voters who couldn’t secure one of the 5 types of photo ID wouldn’t have to get them after all.
Attorney General Alan Wilson and Marci Andino, executive director of the S.C. State Election Commission, told the court that photo IDs, the heart of the controversial law, won’t actually be necessary for those who had legitimate reasons for not getting one.
That essentially guts the law, which can’t be enacted until at least 2013.
The loose interpretation of the law came after countless public pronouncements from the authors and supporters that photo IDs were vital to protect against non-existent widespread in-person voter fraud.
Before the court case, every top Republican in the state was proudly talking about the need for photo ID and how this law finally makes it happen.
They compared the ease of using a photo ID to what each of us must do before we get onto an airplane or buy certain medications, or enter certain buildings – not once recognizing that flying on a commercial airliner or buying Sudafed are privileges while voting is a constitutionally-protected right.
Their entire focus was on the belief that if people were not required to show a photo ID, elections could be rigged – despite not offering up a shred of proof.
There was every reason to believe their intent was to be as strict as possible, because they told us so.
To the public, they presented the heart of the law as the difference between a democracy that works and one that could crumble any second.
But in court, they essentially said they were just joshing about that strict requirement.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons of Myrtle Beach, one of the law’s architects, doesn’t agree with my assessment.
(For the record, again, I do not believe Clemmons is a racist even though he gave a disappointing response to a voter’s racist email that became a central focus of this case. And I know Bruce Bannister, a member of the General Assembly from the Upstate who has championed this law as well. I played football with him at Davidson College.)
Clemmons argues that the court validated their original intent, that photo IDs would become the standard and there would be a provision for eligible voters who had a “reasonable impediment” in securing one.
But this was in the opinion of the three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia wrote:
“To state the obvious, Act R54 as now precleared is not the R54 enacted in May 2011.”
As was this:
“In closing, we underscore that all South Carolina state, county, and local officials must comply with Act R54 as it has been interpreted by the responsible state officials and as it has been described and adopted in this opinion. Any change in the law as so interpreted would be unlawful, without pre-clearance from the Attorney General of the United States or from this Court. We are fully aware, moreover, that what looks good on paper may fall apart in practice. We expect and anticipate that South Carolina state, county, and local officials will endeavor to prevent such slippage.”
The state now promises it will view that reasonable impediment provision as broadly as possible – something they did not say before the Justice Department dragged them into court.
Had they not made that concession, the court likely would have thrown out the law in the way it did a similar law in Texas, which didn’t have that provision.
The problem with the law all along was that it was designed to solve a problem that didn’t exist and increased voting hurdles for some voters.
A photo ID requirement, in theory, is not a big deal.
Most of us have driver’s licenses and other forms of ID we use every day. No matter how the law is implemented, it won’t affect me or most voters.
But theory seldom matches real life. Not until after the law had passed did we find out that tens of thousands of residents might not be able to vote.
State officials could have said that the law would not be implemented until every eligible voter, especially those who had been voting for years, received a proper ID. That would have lessened suspicion that it was drawn up to keep certain groups out of the voting booth.
They also could have done what the court case forced them to do, recognize that unnecessary barriers should not be erected for residents.
There was a way to do this that could have garnered bipartisan support.
Too bad it took the state being sued to get us there.