COLUMBIA -- South Carolinians won't need a picture ID to vote after all.
That is unless the state can figure out a way to change the mind of an assistant U.S. attorney general or persuade a federal judge in Washington, D.C., that South Carolina's new voter ID law does not discriminate against minorities.
State GOP leaders immediately pledged to fight the decision.
A five-page letter signed Friday by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez denies the state permission to implement the law, which intended to require voters to bring a photo ID to the polls as a way to protect against fraud.
Opponents, such as the NAACP, claimed that the law had a much more sinister intent -- to punish minorities from turning out in record numbers to vote for President Barack Obama in 2008.
If the U.S. Justice Department had approved the law, voters would have been required to show a South Carolina driver's license, state-issued ID, passport or military ID to vote as early as Jan. 21 for the Republican presidential primary.
In the future, the State Election Commission had been directed to provide free voter registration cards with photos.
Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, said the Justice Department's rejection is one more setback from the Obama administration.
"I am working every day to move South Carolina forward, and whether it be illegal immigration reform, creating jobs, despite the NLRB, or now voter ID, the president and his bullish administration are fighting us every step of the way," Haley said in a statement.
"It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th amendment rights."
The state can ask the Justice Department to reconsider, respond to the concerns it outlined in Friday's letter or take the matter to U.S. District Court in Washington. South Carolina needs permission from the Justice Department because of the state's past abuses due to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson intends to fight the Justice Department decision in court. He will file legal action as soon as possible, according to a Wilson spokesman.
"Nothing in this act stops people from voting, and I think the court will rule in South Carolina's favor," Wilson said in a statement.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, disputes that claim. She said the law would disenfranchise thousands of voters, mostly those who are elderly, students, minority and low-income.
"This misguided law would have prevented countless South Carolinians from exercising one of our most cherished and basic rights," Middleton said in a statement. "It represented a dramatic setback to voting rights in our state, and we are pleased to see it stopped in its tracks."
There is some dispute over exactly how many voters would have been affected.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Kevin Shwedo, director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles, objects to data from the Election Commission that shows 240,000 registered voters do not have a state-issued driver's license or ID card.
Shwedo provided an analysis to Wilson that shows that 207,000 of those voters are dead, no longer live in South Carolina, allowed their state IDs to expire or have IDs with names that do not match their voter-registration cards.
The Justice Department said the data provided by the state months ago shows that minorities who are registered to vote are nearly 20 percent more likely to lack a DMV-issued ID than white voters.
The agency concluded that based on that data, minorities would be significantly disproportionately affected by the law.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the Justice Department is ignoring a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld a similar law in Indiana. Campsen, the Legislature's chief crafter of the state's voter ID law, said he modeled South Carolina's after the one in Indiana.
It was that Supreme Court ruling that prompted him to write the bill in South Carolina, Campsen said. The bill had nothing to do with the record turnout in Obama's election, he said.
Campsen said the state should take the case to court.
"Asking this Justice Department to reconsider is obviously futile," he said.
Campsen said South Carolina needs a voter ID law to instill confidence in the process, especially in an era that's seen widespread voter registration fraud by the now-disgraced ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
"You need an ID to do almost anything in this society," Campsen said. "The most important right we have is to cast a vote. If someone is casting a vote unlawfully, then that erodes confidence in the process."
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