COLUMBIA — A revised timetable for a federal lawsuit over South Carolina’s voter ID law would make it harder for the new state requirements to impact the Nov. 6 general election.
On Tuesday, the judges who will consider the case rescheduled oral arguments for September 24. That’s nearly two months later than originally planned — and is also more than a week after the deadline by which state officials have said they would need a decision in order to prepare to implement the law this year.
The three-judge panel doesn’t forecast when it might rule in the case. But state prosecutors say they’ll need a determination by September 15 in order to have enough time to make sure people understand the requirements.
In December, the federal government blocked South Carolina’s photo ID requirement in December, saying it could keep tens of thousands of the state’s minorities from casting ballots and failed to meet requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires approval from that agency for changes to South Carolina’s election laws because of the state’s past failure to protect blacks’ voting rights.
It was the first such law to be refused by the federal agency in nearly 20 years. Late last week, the U.S. Justice Department again turned down the law, saying that the state still had not proven that the law wouldn’t be discriminatory.
Passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s law requires voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls. The state is also required to determine how many voters lack state-issued IDs so that the Election Commission can inform them of the new law. The Department of Motor Vehicles will issue free state photo identification cards to those voters.
After the law was rejected, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. A three-judge panel considering the case originally slated oral arguments in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for late July, saying it expected to rule in early September.
On Tuesday, the court said that, because of newly discovered recordings of legislative debate over the bill, those arguments would be delayed until the last week of August, with more time set aside in late September if needed. In a sworn statement, an attorney for South Carolina said that state Senate officials hadn’t initially searched sufficiently for the recordings when asked earlier this year, eventually producing them late last month.
In court papers filed last week, state prosecutors said that they would need a ruling on the law by September 15 in order to make use of it for the Nov. 6 elections.
“Any preclearance after September 15 would be too late for full implementation to occur in time for the election,” Deputy Attorney General Bob Cook wrote. “We would thus advise that if any preclearance occurs after September 15, voters not possessing a Voter ID ... would have a `reasonable impediment’ to obtaining such ID in order to vote.”
State Election Commission executive director Marci Andino has said her agency was ready and willing to do what the law required to get both elections personnel and voters up to speed on the requirements, but didn’t follow through on those actions after the law was rejected. Those steps would have included holding seminars to educate voters about the new requirement, notifying all registered South Carolina voters who didn’t have driver’s licenses and giving them information about how to get free ID cards that would comply with the law.
The commission would need at least four to six weeks to create a system to issue those ID cards, according to Andino.