By MARSHA MERCER
The next big test of conservative muscle is the Republican presidential primary Jan. 21 in South Carolina, but a more important battle there has already been won.
The U.S. Justice Department last month rejected South Carolina’s strict new voter ID law, which requires voters to show a valid, government-issued photo ID. Justice said the state’s law would block qualified blacks from exercising the right to vote.
South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley vows to fight the ruling. South Carolina is among about a dozen states that tightened up on voting laws last year by passing no-photo-no-vote laws, limiting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting periods and other measures.
Proponents insist that strict new photo ID laws are needed to combat widespread election fraud. People are so disillusioned these days that they’re inclined to believe the claims. But where’s the beef?
“The only possible sort of fraud photo ID laws could stop is if someone fraudulently impersonated someone at the polls,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Levitt studied cases of voter fraud nationwide for a paper he wrote in 2007 titled, “The Truth About Voter Fraud.“
And how common is voter impersonation? “It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls,” Levitt told me.
South Carolina, which had a history of discrimination in voting, is required under the federal Voting Rights Act to submit changes in voting law for review by the Justice Department. The state must show that the changes have “neither the purpose nor the effect” of denying or abridging someone’s right to vote because of race, color or membership in a language minority.
The state failed to present “any evidence or instance of either in-person voter impersonation or any other type of fraud that is not already addressed” by existing law, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general, wrote in a letter to state officials.
Under state law in effect since 1988, South Carolinians can vote after showing a driver’s license or non-driver photo ID card or after showing a voter registration card without a photo and signing the poll list.
Photo ID laws have become a rallying point for Republican politicians. GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum called Attorney General Eric Holder “about as biased as any attorney general.”
“You need photo ID to buy a drink. You need photo ID to get on an airplane. You need photo ID to buy cigarettes. So I'm assuming none of their people either drink or smoke,” Santorum said in Iowa, McClatchy reported.
But, Santorum and others who make that argument are forgetting one thing. There’s a fundamental difference between voting and flying, drinking or smoking. Americans have a constitutional right to vote.
Rival GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich questioned why Holder is “so determined not to identify if people are not eligible to vote.” Gingrich charged that the Justice Department is trying desperately “to retain the ability to steal elections.” What?
To be sure, for most Americans, having a photo ID is routine. But many black Southerners who were born at home before birth certificates were always recorded face obstacles to obtaining birth certificates so they can get photo IDs.
Ten percent of non-white registered voters in South Carolina lack the necessary photo ID and could be barred from voting, the state told the Justice Department. Yes, that’s people who already were registered to vote and have been voting for years.
South Carolina first said nearly 240,000 people lacked photo ID cards but later submitted a revised number of about 80,000. The Department of Motor Vehicles said the others had allowed their licenses to expire, had moved or had died.
The push among Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country to tighten up on voting law represents a change in America, where the trend for decades has been to expand voting rights.
Most reports about the new laws focus on how blacks, the poor and students -- who tend to vote Democratic -- could be disenfranchised. An Associated Press analysis found that in South Carolina thousands of older, white, well-to-do voters who live in coastal retirement communities -- and vote Republican -- also could be affected.
Seniors who give up their driver’s licenses may let their passports expire as well and then find themselves without a valid, government-issued photo ID. Under the new law, these voters also could be turned away from the polls.
That’s something I’ll bet Santorum, Gingrich and the rest of the GOP gang haven’t even considered.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.