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Are Voter ID Laws Legal?

Voter ID laws have been around for quite a while, but they're back in the news recently thanks to South Carolina. The Justice Department has rejected the state's new voter ID law, which requires government-issued photo identification at the polls.

The legislation is designed to prevent voter fraud, but some say it discriminates against minorities, the poor and the elderly. Even so, about half of all states impose similar requirements. So aren't voter ID laws legal?

To begin, voter ID laws fall into one of three categories:

  1. Non-Photo ID: voters can present any official paperwork with a name and address, such as a bank statement or utility bill.
  2. Photo ID: signed affidavits or other identifying paperwork will still suffice.
  3. Strict Photo ID: government-issued ID only. Voters can cast provisional ballots and return to verify their identity.

South Carolina's voter ID law falls into the last category, which means it is one of the strictest in the country. A similar law made its way to the Supreme Court in 2008.

The Supreme Court upheld that law in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. Indiana, citing voter fraud, passed a law requiring government-issued ID. The unidentified can cast a provisional ballot and then return within 10 days to show ID.

The court was split. Three justices said it was unconstitutional. Three said the voter ID law was legal, as it posed only a "minimal and justified burden." And three said that there was no "facial challenge" to the law as written.

Together, these last two groups upheld the law. However, the indecisiveness of that last group left the legality of voter ID laws up for debate. It's possible that, as applied, a voter ID law may not be legal. But until that happens, voter ID laws will be enforced.

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