[Logo image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice]
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice's Voting Section requested more information from the State of South Carolina regarding a new photo ID law for voters.
DOJ is reviewing the new law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires some states and jurisdictions - including SC - to submit their voting changes for approval before they can be enforced.
The request for more information - which gives the state 60 days to respond and will delay DOJ's decision up to 60 days after the receipt of the new data - came in a letter from Section chief Chris Herren to the office of Attorney General Alan Wilson.*
DOJ's review of the SC photo ID law is being closely watched to see how the Obama Administration will respond (if at all) to the growing adoption of voter ID laws across the country. It is also seen as a key indicator of DOJ review of Congressional and state legislative plans - always important but especially so because this is the first time since enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that redistricting will occur under a Democratic administration.
I, on the other hand, will be watching the decision for a much smaller but no less significant reason. Namely, the DOJ request for more information seeks (among other things) hard data on the number of registered voters who lack the required photo ID. According to the Associated Press, the State Election Commission has already estimated that
More than 178,000 voters lack a driver's license or DMV photo ID. That represents 7 percent of registered voters: 64 percent of them are white; 27 percent are over age 65.
DOJ has asked SC, as part of the additional data request, to provide a "copy of the state's registered voter list, breaking down by race registered voters who lack a driver's license."
This data will be crucial in evaluating widespread claims that voter ID will disenfranchise large numbers of voters. To date, empirical evidence of disenfranchisement has been scarce - indeed, just as scarce as evidence of voter fraud used to justify voter ID laws. Notably, plaintiffs challenging ID laws have so far been unable to produce a single individual who cannot vote because they lack the required ID.
In the absence of such evidence, therefore, rhetoric about disenfranchisement is as heated as that alleging widespread fraud. Just last weekend, Rep, John Lewis (D-GA) penned an op-ed in the New York Times likening voter ID laws to Jim Crow laws, calling them "poll taxes by another name" and alleging that "as many as 25 percent of African-Americans lack acceptable identification."
Regardless of the outcome, DOJ's review of SC's photo ID laws will give us something we haven't much of in the debate to date: hard data. While this data will only describe one state's experience, the lessons learned may finally enable the field to approach voter ID - indeed, all election policy - from an empirical rather than a rhetorical perspective.
As far as I'm concerned, that's something worth waiting 120 days for.
*8:35am - This post has been updated to reflect that the DOJ letter went to an assistant deputy AG in Wilson's office and not to Wilson himself.