WASHINGTON — How South Carolina election officials accommodate voters unable to get required photo identification before going to the polls is playing a key role in the legal fight over whether the state's strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities.
A week of testimony in the federal trial of South Carolina's lawsuit against the Obama administration wrapped up Friday with the state's attorney general, Alan Wilson, saying people without cars, birth certificates, not enough time or other "reasonable impediments" to getting photo identification would "absolutely" be allowed to vote under the law.
Wilson gave the explanation to the panel of three federal judges after they asked for clarification on the law's "reasonable impediment" provision, which allows voters to submit signed and notarized affidavits at the poll saying they were unable to get the required ID and naming the reason.
"We have balanced the interest of ensuring the integrity of the electoral system with the fundamental right of the individual to vote," Wilson said outside the courtroom.
Attorneys for the government and opponents of the law disagreed. Richard Dellheim, a Justice Department lawyer, said the state has provided completely different explanations of the provision at other times. He said the law has evolved and changed throughout the Voting Rights Act review and trial process.
"Here we are at the end of the trial, and the facts are still changing," Dellheim said.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Sept. 24, six weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Wilson said the law, if approved by the panel, would go into effect immediately. If it's struck down, the state could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
In the past two weeks, courts in three states have ruled on voting laws. A federal judge in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday granted a request from President Barack Obama's campaign to give all voters in the swing state the option of casting their ballot in person during the three days before Election Day. The law makes an exception for military personnel and Ohio voters living overseas. The judge concluded that the law was unconstitutional in changing the in-person early voting deadline and that the state was wrongly valuing certain votes above others. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine plans to appeal the decision, likely on Tuesday.
A separate three-judge panel struck down Texas' voter ID law on Thursday. The states' laws are subject to Justice Department approval under the Voting Rights Act because of their history of discrimination against minorities. The Obama administration decision that South Carolina's law violated the act's protections for minority voters prompted South Carolina's suit.
In Pennsylvania, a voter ID law passed by Republicans without Democratic support and signed by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett was upheld by a state appeals court two weeks ago. That ruling will be the subject of a Sept. 13 state Supreme Court hearing in Philadelphia. The Justice Department is also looking at the Pennsylvania law, although the state is not subject to the pre-approval provisions of the Voting Rights Act as Texas and South Carolina are.
During the week, South Carolina sought to show the law was intended to detect fraud and build the public's confidence in the integrity of the election system. State lawmakers who testified denied they intended to discriminate.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons, the law's House sponsor, said the law "doesn't disenfranchise anyone."
But lawyers for the Justice Department and groups opposed to the law have raised doubts about the state's intent by introducing an email exchange with Clemmons and by showing that earlier voter ID legislation allowed for more types of identification to vote and provided early voting periods. They also portrayed the reasonable impediment provision as vague and open to interpretation by hundreds of poll workers and election officials.
"The purpose of (the South Carolina law) was to burden minority voters to a greater extent than white voters and therefore to depress their turnout," Ted Arrington, political science professor at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and expert in voting behavior and voting systems who testified on behalf of the government, said Friday.
The South Carolina law allows people to vote if they can show a driver's license or other photo ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, a passport, military ID with photo, or a voter registration card that includes a photo.
In the end, the court must decide whether South Carolina's law creates such a burden on minorities that it causes them not to exercise their right to vote.
South Carolina's population is 64 percent white, 28 percent African American and 5 percent Hispanic. State election data produced in the trial showed 30 percent of registered white voters lacked photo IDs, compared to 36 percent of minority voters.
The trial unfolded during the same week Republicans met in Tampa for their convention, and Mitt Romney officially accepted the GOP nomination for president.
Republicans are dealing with a party membership that is increasingly white as the nation's minority populations have increased.
A wave of states with Republican-controlled legislatures and governor's offices, including South Carolina, passed voter ID laws starting last year, in time for some to take effect before the Nov. 6 elections. Critics say they are a direct response to minority turnout in 2008 that helped put Barack Obama in the White House. South Carolina was among seven states considered to have the strictest laws.
A highlight of the trial came when opponents' attorneys questioned Clemmons about an email exchange with a constituent identified as Ed Koziol. Koziol said in an email that a poor, black or elderly person would get the required ID if the South Carolina legislature announced it was giving away $100 bills.
"It would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon," Koziol wrote.
Clemmons replied: "Amen, Ed. Thank you for your support of voter ID."
Clemmons acknowledged at the trial that the watermelon reference had "a shade of racism."
The judges on the panel hearing the South Carolina case are Colleen Kollar-Kotelly and John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and Brett M. Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
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