WASHINGTON (CN) - South Carolina can require voters to show photo identification at the polls, but not this year, a panel of federal judges ruled Wednesday.
The three-judge panel in Washington rejected claims from the Justice Department that the law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As one of 16 states deemed to have a history of discriminatory election laws, the act requires South Carolina to submit proposed voting law changes to the federal government for preclearance.
South Carolina's law requires voters to show a driver's license, passport, military photo ID or voter-registration card with a photo before they can cast a ballot in state elections. South Carolina legislators said the law is essential to preventing fraud at the polls.
But the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division blocked implementation of the law in December, pointing to South Carolina data that shows registered nonwhite voters are 20 percent more likely than white voters to lack state-issued photo identification.
The judges found Wednesday, however, that the South Carolina law includes a number of safeguards to ensure minority voters have equal access to the polls.
"At first blush, one might have thought South Carolina had enacted a very strict photo ID law," Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court. "Much of the initial rhetoric surrounding the law suggested as much. But that rhetoric was based on a misunderstanding of how the law would work. Act R54, as it has been authoritatively construed by South Carolina officials, does not have the effects that some expected and some feared."
The decision adds later that "a voter may assert any of the myriad other reasons for not procuring one of the required photo IDs, such as: I had to work, I was unemployed and looking for work, I didn't have transportation to the county office, I didn't have enough money to make the trip, I was taking care of my children, I was helping my family, I was busy with my charitable work, and so on."
The panel, which also featured Judges Colleen Kollar-Kotelly and John Bates, also held that South Carolina legislators did not have a discriminatory intent when they enacted the law.
Rather, the lawmakers mandated "a variety of education and outreach efforts to inform voters, poll managers, and county officials about the law's effects," according to the ruling.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called the ruling is a "major victory for South Carolina and its election process."
"It affirms our voter ID law is valid and constitutional under the Voting Rights Act," Wilson said in a statement. "The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise; they ensure the integrity of the ballot box."
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