Election 2016

A sign tells voters what kind of photo ID will be accepted in South Carolina to vote.  Brad Nettles/Staff 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday not to reconsider its 2016 ruling that upheld a lower court decision deeming North Carolina's voter identification laws unconstitutional.

From the other side of the country to neighboring South Carolina, advocates cheered the blow to the North Carolina Legislature's attempts to shorten the early voting window, eliminate same-day voter registration and enforce the most stringent of voter ID requirements.

In the Palmetto State, however, activists are also mulling what consequences the decision could have on their election laws, positive or negative.

"We are cautiously optimistic," said Dwight James, the executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But we must remain vigilant."

Within the past decade, South Carolina has confronted its own election law challenges.

In 2011, then-Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law mandating voters produce government-issued proof of identification in order to vote, but the Justice Department barred the state from implementing it.

At that time, South Carolina was still one of six states subject to a "pre-clearance" requirement, meaning the Justice Department had to review all proposed changes to local election laws to determine if they would have an adverse affect on minority communities.

The six states tied to the pre-clearance mandate — created through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — were those with a proven history of racially discriminatory actions at the polls.

In between 2011 and 2012, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson spent over $3 million fighting the decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which ultimately ruled South Carolina could proceed with implementation because it included an exemption for voters who could not obtain a valid ID due to a "reasonable impediment." 

Then came 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance requirement for all subjected states, arguing it ignored the progress these states had made in reconciling racial tensions. Now, South Carolina can make any change to its election system without obtaining federal approval.

So far, the state has not tried to change voter ID requirements. However, James pointed out that since the end of pre-clearance, the South Carolina Legislature has approved re-configurations to school board voting districts in alleged attempts to dilute the votes of African-Americans who are predominantly Democratic.

It is for this reason, James said, that advocates should be on guard. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., agreed.

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"I think what we have to keep in mind is that for several years now our system of jurisprudence has come under a lot of stress brought on by the unusual application of politics to the law," said Clyburn, the third most senior House Democrat and highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress.

Clyburn added, however, that the locally-elected Republicans he's spoken with say they aren't eager to wage a fight on controversial voter ID laws that could end up getting national attention.

Meanwhile, any attempt to institute new regulations would be difficult to achieve at this point. South Carolina comes under the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, same as North Carolina, meaning the judges there have already spoken.

"The state of South Carolina is bound by that 4th Circuit decision, and so until that decision or one like it gets rejected by the Supreme Court, the state will have to be careful about enacting further laws that make it more difficult to register and vote," Rick Hasen, an election-law specialist at the law school of the University of California at Irvine, told The Post and Courier in an email.

"In the longer run, the new conservative Supreme Court is likely to give states more leeway. But that’s different from the short-term picture," he said.

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.

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