A flawed voter ID law

A flawed voter ID law

December 28th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Justice Department's decision last week to block South Carolina's new voter ID law is a shot over the bow to Tennessee and six other states that passed similar laws this year -- and a score or more waiting in the wings to do so. The decision affirms the obvious reason to overturn all such state laws: They will disproportionately suppress the voting rights of minorities, students and elderly and disabled voters -- simply because those groups historically tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans.

The Justice Department's decision in South Carolina is a bit unique. Due to the state's documented history of suppressing civil rights and voting laws, it must prove to the Justice Department that any changes it makes in voting laws will not have a disparate impact on minorities. It failed that test.

Based on South Carolina's own analysis, Justice officials ruled that the new voter ID law could keep nearly 82,000 registered black voters from voting in coming elections. That number, it found, constitutes a far higher proportion of black voters than white voters who would be similarly blocked from voting. It also found there was no evidence of voter fraud sufficient to require such a restrictive law. South Carolina officials subsequently claimed that the numbers it submitted for review may have been too high, but Justice officials found that they may not be high enough because they failed to take into account Hispanics and other legal immigrants.

South Carolina officials seem likely to appeal the ruling to federal court. Even so, it should propel voter-rights advocates in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Kansas and Rhode Island to challenge their new state voter ID laws in federal court. Tennessee's voter-ID law should be especially vulnerable.

Like South Carolina, it would require hundreds of thousands of voters, mostly the elderly or poor minorities, to travel out-of-county to crowded driver's license centers, which typically have hours-long wait times, to obtain a valid state-issued voter ID license. Barely of third of Tennessee counties have a state driver's license center, and their staffs are unequipped and untrained to administer the law. Gov. Bill Haslam has wrongly failed to provide each county's Election Commission a photo-ID machine to facilitate issuance of such cards. The state has also failed to show evidence of voter fraud.

States that have passed these laws are now all dominated by Republicans, and are working under a national Republican agenda for suppressing the votes of people who might vote for Democrats. Such political partisanship by any party is wrong and un-American. The Justice Department should not limit its review to South Carolina and Florida, its first targets. It should scrutinize Tennessee and other states to stop suppression of voting rights.