WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new South Carolina law that generally requires voters to show photo identification does not discriminate against racial minorities but cannot go into effect until the start of next year, a federal court ruled on Wednesday.
The U.S. District Court three-judge panel said too little time remains before the November 6 general election for state officials to implement the law this year. The decision was unanimous.
Republican governors and state lawmakers across the country have renewed the push for photo-identification requirements in the past two years.
The requirements are necessary to deter fraud, they say, although examples of in-person voter impersonation are rare. Democrats argue the laws are intended to depress turnout among groups that support them.
The U.S. Justice Department opposed the South Carolina law, arguing it runs afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark of the U.S. civil rights movement.
Under the law, certain jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory election laws, such as South Carolina, must submit proposed election changes to the Justice Department or to a federal court for approval.
A separate three-judge panel in August blocked Texas' law. But measures in states including Georgia and New Hampshire have met with approval.
South Carolina's law contains enough safeguards to ensure it will not be discriminatory, the latest ruling said.
For example, the state allows those with a non-photo voter registration card to vote without a photo identification if they state a reason for not having one, the judges said.
"South Carolina's new voter ID law is significantly more friendly to voters without qualifying photo IDs than several other contemporary state laws that have passed legal muster," wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
The judges also concluded that South Carolina legislators did not have a discriminatory purpose when they enacted the law, another requirement under the Voting Rights Act.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said the ruling is a "major victory" for the state's election process.
"The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise; they ensure integrity at the ballot box," he said in a statement.
A Justice Department spokesman had no immediate comment.
Reporting by David Ingram and Harriet McLeod; Editing by Xavier Briand