THE ISSUE: Voter ID laws; OUR OPINION: Ruling advances ID process without disenfranchising people now

South Carolinians on both sides of the voter-identification battle are claiming victory in a federal court ruling, but it seems clear the larger issue will not be settled until the U.S. Supreme Court steps in.

While similar laws in other states have been overturned, the South Carolina statute requiring voters to present state-approved photo identification in order to cast ballots in elections and primaries was upheld by a three-judge panel this past week. But the law’s enforcement was delayed until next year.

Republicans are happy because the GOP-dominated Legislature had its efforts vindicated, with the judges finding no discriminatory intent behind the law. Democrats are happy because the law challenged by the U.S. Justice Department as discriminatory to minorities and the elderly will not be implemented in the Nov. 6 election.

South Carolina may serve as the national model for laws mandating photo identification to cast votes in elections and primaries, largely because the law has been greatly diluted. In virtually any instance, a voter will be able to cast a ballot whether or not he or she has a photo ID. Judges made clear that ensuring just that was integral to their decision.

The judges noted the law allows voters to show a driver’s license, ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, a newly created voter registration card with a photo, a passport or military ID. That expands the list of acceptable identification under existing law, which requires a driver’s license, state ID or a voter registration card to vote. The present registration cards do not include photographs.

But a voter without photo identification is not to be turned away. “Any reason asserted by the voter ... for not having a photo ID must be accepted,” unless false, and the “ballot counted,” the judges said.

People who face a “reasonable impediment” to getting an acceptable photo ID can vote by signing an affidavit, the judges said.

Among acceptable reasons for not having a photo ID: having to work, being unemployed and looking for a job, lacking transportation to a state office, the cost of that travel, child or family issues, lack a birth certificate, disability or illness, a religious objection or being “busy with charitable work.”

Other states’ laws that have been rejected by the courts are not as accommodating to people without photo IDs, and the court battles on each will go on long after Nov. 6. Some states will reject South Carolina’s leniency. Yet it would seem the Palmetto State’s law could show the way for the U.S. Supreme Court in making the final call.

While the South Carolina law virtually nullifies the photo ID requirement, it advances the process toward all voters having such identification. No one is disenfranchised, but the voting process will advance toward identification standards comparable to those found in everyday life. At some point in the future, voters without photo IDs will be a rarity.

With the objective being to prevent fraud while ensuring that every person who wishes to vote can do so without impediment, South Carolina and the judges have struck the right balance.

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