By Mary Orndorff Troyan
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - South Carolina spent $3.5 million defending its voter identification law against government allegations of discrimination, while other states with similar laws faced no such opposition, the state's top attorney said recently in court papers.
The discrepancy proves the 1965 Voting Rights Act treats some states unfairly, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote in a brief supporting a challenge to two of the act's provisions.
Those provisions require South Carolina and all or parts of 15 other states with a history of discriminating against minorities at the ballot box to get "preclearance" from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any changes in their election procedures.
Wilson filed a brief along with three other states to support a challenge to the preclearance requirement brought by Shelby County, Ala. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in that case on Feb. 27.
Wilson cited the state's recent voter ID battle with the Justice Department to bolster his argument that preclearance is unfair and threatens states' rights.
The department objected to South Carolina's voter ID law, saying it might disenfranchise minority voters. So the state went to court.
After a trial, state officials were allowed to implement the law, but not right away. And last week, a federal court said the state could recoup some, but not all, of its $90,000 in court costs. The $3.5 million is what the state paid its attorneys in the case.
"It cannot be disputed that South Carolina incurred an enormous cost to preclear a law similar to one that Indiana was able to implement without the federal government's involvement," Wilson said in his brief.
Congress voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to renew the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. Shelby County - conservative and mostly white - filed suit in 2010 saying preclearance is no longer necessary in a state that has progressed beyond its history of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Lower courts twice upheld preclearance as necessary to prevent discrimination, sending the Shelby County case to the Supreme Court.
On the other side of the case, the Justice Department, black citizens of Shelby County and a host of civil rights groups say Congress had ample evidence to justify the law's renewal. They call it a critical tool for blocking election procedures that would otherwise discriminate against minority voters.
Nationally, the Justice Department filed more than 600 objections to preclearance requests from 1982 to 2004, and more than 800 changes were withdrawn or modified after the agency asked for more information about them.
The government's latest brief responding to Shelby County has not yet been filed with the court.
South Carolina is one of several states backing Shelby County's challenge to Section 4b, the formula used to decide which states or counties are subject to preclearance under Section 5.
"Section 5 was an important and necessary part of the effort to end voter discrimination in this country, but has now outlived its purpose," the states wrote.
The lawsuit was filed by the Shelby County Commission but the lawyers are being paid by the Project on Fair Representation, a small nonprofit legal defense fund that tries to narrow or eliminate the use of race in public policy.
"It should be instructive to the court that six of the nine states fully covered by this provision believe it violates their state's equal sovereignty," said Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation.
Section 5 applies to all of nine states and parts of seven others. Six of the nine fully covered states are backing Shelby County: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas.