WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Carolina defended its new voter-identification law in federal court on Monday, arguing the requirement that all voters show a form of photo ID prevents fraud without discriminating against black voters.
The Obama administration blocked the law in December, its latest attempt to stop a wave of laws in Republican-controlled states that require voters to show certain forms of photo ID at the polls.
The federal government says the state laws make voting more difficult for blacks, who are less likely than whites to have the required forms of photo ID and are also more likely to vote for Democrats.
South Carolina’s legislature said it passed the identification law last year to prevent people from posing under a fake identity when going to vote, and to inspire more confidence in the integrity of elections.
“There is no conflict between the right to vote and (South Carolina’s law),” said Christopher Bartolomucci, one of the lead attorneys for the state, during opening arguments in front of a three-judge panel sitting in Washington. “In fact, (it) safeguards the right to vote.”
The U.S. Department of Justice stopped South Carolina’s law from taking effect using a power under the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that allows the government to veto voting rule-changes in states with a history of racial repression.
The Act also requires nine states -- South Carolina among them -- and certain counties to have all voting changes cleared in advance by the government. But the Obama administration has been selective about which voter ID laws it contests, focusing on those with stricter requirements. It also challenged the photo ID law in Texas, with arguments held in July.
South Carolina’s new law requires voters to present one of five forms of photo ID, such as a passport, a driver’s license or an identification card from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
In the first day of week-long hearings, South Carolina argued this requirement would not hurt blacks more than other groups.
Of 178,000 registered voters who did not have a driver’s license or DMV photo identification in 2010, about 36 percent were racial minorities. The attorneys for the state said the rate was generally representative of the population as a whole, as 30 percent of the state’s residents are not white.
But the federal government’s lawyers said the discrepancy was too high, as proportionately more non-whites lacked photo identification. They also argued blacks had lower income levels, lower education and a lack of access to transportation, making it more difficult for them to get a photo ID.
“South Carolina cannot meet its burden of showing (its voter ID law) will not be motivated at least in part for a discriminatory purpose,” said Bradley Heard, a lawyer with the Department of Justice.
The DOJ also disputed whether the law would truly prevent fraud, since there have been no proven cases of voter misrepresentation fraud in South Carolina -- the specific type of fraud that the state said would be solved by requiring photo identification.
The hearings are expected to go for another four days, with a decision likely before the November 6 national election.
The case is State of South Carolina v. United States of America and Eric Holder, Jr., U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 1:12-cv-203.
editing by Philip Barbara