A federal court panel in Washington Wednesday ruled in favor of South Carolina's voter photo ID law, but said it cannot go into effect until next year because there's too little time to implement the new law for this November's election.
The three-judge panel said South Carolina's law does not discriminate against racial minorities as the Justice Department and other opponents had argued.
The ruling further clouds the issue, which has resulted in conflicting rulings on whether requiring voters to present an identification card bearing the person's photograph is discriminatory.
In "pre-clearing key sections of the South Carolina statute, the judges compared the law with those of other states, including Texas, where a federal court panel rejected a photo ID requirement for voting," wrote the opinion's author, D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
"In sum, our comparison of South Carolina's act to some other states' voter ID laws ... strongly buttresses the conclusion that South Carolina's law has neither a discriminatory effect nor a discriminatory purpose," he wrote.
Circuit judges John Bates and Colleen Kollar-Kotelly joined with concurring opinions.
The judges said the new law would require voters to be informed of and educated about the law's requirements, which would not be possible before the November 6 elections. Therefore, the panel rejected trying to implement the provisions for the upcoming balloting.
The judges noted that about 95% of South Carolina registered voters possess the approved photo IDs. That includes 96% of whites and 92% to 94% of African-American voters.
Despite the disparity, the court found that state election officials had included a "sweeping reasonable impediment provision" that eliminates any disproportionate effect or material burden on voters.
The judges took note of the requirement in the Texas law, which has been blocked in court, requiring many citizens to get a birth certificate that costs $22. And in Texas, unlike South Carolina, many counties lack a place for voters to obtain qualifying photo identification cards.
The court found no comparable issues in the South Carolina law.
The Justice Department, although on the losing end of the ruling, issued a statement expressing satisfaction with much of the opinion.
"The Department of Justice is pleased that the court has denied "preclearance" of the South Carolina law for the 2012 elections," said Justice Department civil rights spokeswoman Dena Iverson. "With regard to future elections, the department welcomes the court's agreement that South Carolina's law required broad modifications in order to respond to the serious concerns raised by the attorney general that the law as written would exclude minority voters."
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson declared victory in the case, calling the ruling "a major victory for South Carolina and its election process."
"It affirms our voter ID law is valid and constitutional under the Voting Rights Act," he said. "We will work diligently to implement this law for all future elections."