Fair ruling on a fair law

Three federal judges unanimously — and rightly — upheld South Carolina’s voter ID law Wednesday. That drew praise from the 2011 legislation’s proponents.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit also wisely ruled that the measure can’t take effect until next year. That drew praise from the law’s opponents.

So both sides are happy about the outcome, right?

Wrong.

The harshest critics of voter ID laws, including the S.C. version, condemn them as new twists on old Jim Crow gimmicks — including poll taxes and literacy tests — that in their day effectively disenfranchised large numbers of black voters.

Yet photo ID laws in other states, including Indiana and Georgia, have not produced that effect.

And while it’s always prudent to suspect self-serving political motives from politicians, there is a pragmatic, bipartisan case for requiring photo IDs from voters.

No, that’s not the only step that should be taken to modernize the method by which U.S. elections are held — and to assure more accurate outcomes. A careful review of the integrity of electronic voting machines comes to mind.

But photo ID is a practical way to better validate voter identity.

In 21st century America, you must have a photo ID to open a bank account, to board an airliner and even to buy some non-prescription sinus medications. So why shouldn’t you also have to have a photo a ID to vote?

Yes, there must be a reasonable balance between verifying who a voter is and providing photo IDs to the relatively few Americans who now lack them.

According to the federal appeals court, our state’s law passes that fairness test. It requires voters to have an S.C. driver’s license, state photo ID, military ID, passport or a new form of free photo card from a county election office.

The law also contains a “reasonable impediment” caveat that lets voters without such photo IDs cast ballots after signing an affidavit explaining why they don’t.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote in the decision released Wednesday: “South Carolina’s new voter ID law is significantly more friendly to voters without qualifying photo IDs than several other contemporary state laws that have passed legal muster.”

The ruling was a victory for South Carolina’s suit against the U.S. Justice Department, which decreed last December that the voter ID law couldn’t be implemented because it discriminates against minority voters.

But while the judges were right to recognize that this is a sound — and just — law, they were also right to recognize what they called a “potential for chaos” if it were in force for a general election held less than four weeks from their decision. Postponing its implementation until next year gives state and local officials more time to prepare for its impact — and to help those without photo IDs get them.

As a state lawmaker who advocated the photo ID requirement put it before the law he sponsored passed last year, such laws are needed to protect “the integrity of the system.”

No, that argument didn’t come from a South Carolina Republican intent on suppressing the minority vote.

It came from a black Rhode Island Democrat, Sen. Harold Metts. Large margins in both chambers of the heavily Democratic Rhode Island Legislature approved that state’s voter ID law last year.

In doing so, they didn’t buy the familiar pitch that voter fraud is too rare to warrant the photo ID standard.

Many detractors of voter ID laws contend that they are a clear backlash to the 2008 election of our first black president — an argument that fails to acknowledge states that had enacted such legislation years earlier.

For instance, Indiana’s voter ID legislation was passed and signed into law in 2005. Three years later, it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal stalwart writing for the 6-3 majority, pointed out: “Flagrant examples of such fraud ... have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists.” He added that “not only is the risk of voter fraud real but ... it could affect the outcome of a close election.”

Fair photo ID laws lower that risk without erecting onerous barriers to voting.

And as those federal appeals court judges ruled Wednesday, South Carolina’s voter ID law merits that “fair” description.