AG Eric Holder vows to enforce Voting Rights Act, protect MLK’s legacy

The voting rights of minorities are under attack as states like South Carolina seek to impose strict voter ID laws that would disenfranchise people of color by making it more difficult to cast a ballot, warned Attorney General Eric Holder.

Speaking at the NAACP’s rally to commemorate Martin Luther King’s day in Columbia, South Carolina, Holder vowed to step up the Justice Department’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. 

“Nearly half a century ago, Dr. King correctly observed that, although the walls of segregation were crumbling, without equal access to the ballot box, America’s minority citizens would have ‘dignity without strength,'” said Holder. “We need – and the American people deserve – election systems that are free from discrimination, free from partisan influence, and free from fraud. And we must do everything within our power to make certain that these systems are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.”

In December, the Department of Justice blocked South Carolina’s new voter ID law from taking effect on the grounds that the requirements and the enforcement measures proposed would disproportionately affect minority voters.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, said he will be filing an appeal in the D.C. District Court later this month.

Because of its history of discrimination against African-Americans, South Carolina – where the Confederate flag still adorns the State House – is one of nine states required to submit any proposed changes to election practices or procedures to the Justice Department for “preclearance” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to protect the right of all citizens to vote, to ensure equal access regardless of race or gender, and to strike down “barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process.” Under Section 5, South Carolina must prove that the proposed changes have “neither discriminatory purpose or effect” or the Justice Department may block the implementation of those changes.

South Carolina’s new voter ID law

The current law in South Carolina, in effect since 1988, allows a person to vote by presenting a voter registration card or driver’s license or a non-driver’s ID card. But the new voter ID law passed by the South Carolina legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley last year will toughen the rules that voters will have to follow at the polls.

Under Act R54, voters will bear the burden of proving their identity by requiring voters to provide a valid and current form of photo identification before they are allowed to cast a vote. The five acceptable forms of IDs listed are: a South Carolina driver’s license; another form of ID containing a photograph issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles; a passport; a military ID containing a photograph issued by the federal government; or a South Carolina voter registration card containing a photograph of the voter.

If a voter isn’t able to provide a valid photo ID, then he or she will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot at the polling place. However, the vote may not be counted unless the voter is able to provide one of the five valid forms of ID to the county’s board of registration and elections before the election result is certified.

In addition to presenting a valid ID, every voter must sign the poll list, after which the polling manager will compare the voter’s signature on the poll list to the one on his or her ID. The language in the provision grants wide discretion to the polling manager to “require further identification of the voter and proof of his right to vote under this title as he considers necessary.”

Given the state’s long history of discriminatory voting practices, there is reason to fear that this provision could be applied arbitrarily to discourage non-white voters from participating in elections or even abused to disqualify votes cast by people of color.

Why the Justice Department blocked South Carolina’s Act R54

In a letter dated Dec. 23, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez cited the following reasons for objecting to South Carolina’s new voter ID law:

  • Minority voters are “effectively disenfranchised by Act R54’s new requirements.” According to data provided by the State Election Commission, 239,333 registered voters (or 8.9%) did not have the DMV-issued photo identifications acceptable under Act R54. Minority registered voters were 20% more likely to not have the DMV-issued ID than white registered voters. Perez also pointed out that South Carolina was unable to refute or address the 20% gap between white and non-white voters who lack the requisite photo ID.
  • Although non-white voters make up 30.4% of the registered voters in the state, they account for 34.2% of registered voters who would be ineligible to vote because they don’t have the photo IDs required by Act R54. The state’s data show 81,938 minority registered voters won’t be able to vote if the new law takes effect. “Non-white voters were therefore disproportionately represented, to a significant degree, in the group of registered voters who, under the proposed law, would be rendered ineligible to go to the polls and participate in the election,” according to Perez.
  • The Justice Department determined that the “reasonable impediments” exemption in Act R54 was too ambiguous to “mitigate the law’s discriminatory effects.” “The exemption’s vagueness raises the possibility that it will be applied differently…possibly from polling place to polling place, and thus risks exacerbating rather than mitigating the regressive effect of the new requirements on minority voters,” Perez wrote.
  • While South Carolina claimed the voter ID law was passed to combat in-person voter fraud, the state failed to present “any evidence or instance of either in-person voter impersonation or any other type of fraud” that isn’t already addressed by the existing voter ID requirements or demonstrate how such fraud could only be deterred by requiring photo IDs. At a recent press conference, Gov. Haley was unable to provide reporters with facts to substantiate the extent of voter fraud actually committed in the state. Instead, Haley pointed to anecdotal statements to support her claim. “I think in South Carolina they have always had certain areas where they have had questionable actions, where they thought things were wrong,” Haley responded. In the end, South Carolina couldn’t show that the purported benefit of the voter ID law (to combat in-person voter fraud) outweighed the disenfranchisement of minority voters that will result if the new law takes effect.

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