COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ A federal court has given the state of South Carolina until Monday to clarify whether it would be feasible to implement a statewide voter identification requirement in time for this year's general elections.
State elections officials have said that, in order to take appropriate steps to use the law for the Nov. 6 general election, the requirement that voters present government-issued photo identification at the polls must go into effect no later than Aug. 1 of this year.
Now, it will be up to state Attorney General Alan Wilson to outline what steps the state would need to take to create photo voter ID cards and make sure voters know the rules in enough time for the general election. The deadlines for the state would be tight. But one of the three judges hearing the case said the speedy schedule is necessary if state officials want to be able to use the law _ if approved _ this year.
A panel of three federal judges in Washington, D.C., is considering the lawsuit filed by Wilson, who earlier this year sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder over the U.S. Department of Justice's rejection of the law.
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. Justice officials also said the law failed to meet requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires the Justice Department to approve 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.
The law also requires the state to determine how many voters lack state-issued IDs so that the State Election Commission can inform them of the new law. The Department of Motor Vehicles will issue free state photo identification cards to those voters.
In a sworn statement submitted earlier this year, State Election Commission executive director Marci Andino 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 never followed through on those actions after the law was rejected. Those steps would have included:
_ holding a series of seminars to educate voters about the new requirement;
_ advertising the new policies in publications throughout the state;
_ and 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.
In addition to the machinations of putting such a law into place, several groups that have intervened in the case on the side of the federal government say there is simply not enough time left to both educate voters about the law and give them a chance to get the required identification before the November elections.
The League of Women Voters has argued that the law would hinder its Election Day duties of helping with a voter protection hotline and mean the league spends fewer resources on voter registration. Attorneys for the NAACP, which represents five black Benedict College students who wouldn't be able to use their school-issued ID cards at the polls, said the law would keep black voters from being able to cast ballots.
The American Civil Liberties Union represents three voters who say they have been unable to get the photo identification required by the law in order to vote.
The three-judge panel considering the case has set a schedule that, one of them wrote in court papers filed last week (April 26) “seeks to minimize the harms to the litigation process, on the one hand, and affected South Carolina voters, on the other.''
In that same filing, U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote that the courthouse rush could have been avoided altogether if South Carolina had not only been more complete in its paperwork seeking initial approval from the Justice Department but also been swifter in challenging the rejection in court.
“A state's need to preclear an election law in time for a presidential election is, without question, quite compelling,'' Bates wrote. “But extraordinarily expedited litigation of preclearance cases can have negative consequences.''