Recognizing that this year's elections are just six weeks away, a panel of three federal judges questioned on Monday whether South Carolina should wait until 2014 to put its voter-identification law into effect.
The judges raised the question as an attorney for South Carolina delivered closing arguments in the trial over whether the state's law discriminates against minorities. Last December, the Justice Department refused to "preclear" — find it complies with the Voting Rights Act — the law so it could go into effect.
A decision in the case is expected in early October.
Voter-ID laws have become a point of contention in this year's elections, particularly with the close race between President Obama, a Democrat, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Democrats contend the laws could prevent key constituencies from voting, making a difference in tight races.
The laws' opponents see them as a Republican response to 2008's record turnout of black and Hispanic voters. Supporters have pitched the laws as tools against voter fraud and to build confidence in the integrity of the election system.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas' voter ID law, but has upheld laws in Georgia and Indiana. State courts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have blocked those states' voter-ID laws for now. The Justice Department cleared New Hampshire's voter-ID law earlier this year.
South Carolina's law requires voters to show a driver's license or other photo identification issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, a passport, military photo identification or a voter-registration card with a photo on it.
Asking questions from the bench, the judges pointed out that if they allow South Carolina to implement the law, voters would not have much time before the Nov. 6 elections to get required ID.
"Are you urging us to preclear for 2012?" asked U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Columbia John Bates.
Christopher Bartomolucci, the attorney for South Carolina, said the state wants approval for 2012 as well as future elections. He explained the state's law allows people to claim they were unable to get the required ID because of a "reasonable impediment." People unable to do so because there is not enough time before Election Day would be able to make that claim, he said.
"Everybody's got a pass for this election," Mr. Bartomolucci said.
But that provision also raised questions.
Judges agreed that the provision made South Carolina's law less troublesome and is the only reason the law would work for this year's election.
But they expressed some skepticism about the process for voters without required ID. Those voters will be asked at the polls whether they had a reasonable impediment beyond their control that kept them from getting the ID.
If they answer yes, they can fill out an affidavit stating the reason and have the affidavit notarized. The state has said it will make notaries available at all of its polling places, and they will not be allowed to charge fees for the service. They then will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot.
The law requires voters who cast provisional ballots to bring any of the required ID to the county election office before the vote is certified for their vote to count. But the state said in trial testimony that poll workers would err on the side of voters and count the provisional vote unless the county had grounds to believe false information was given. The county election official also said poll managers would sign affidavits if notaries were not available, even though that would violate the law.
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