Cindi Scoppe | The right way to do voter ID

I doubt that Attorney General Alan Wilson has the authority to enforce his generous new interpretation of South Carolina’s new voter ID law – he can merely advise election officials, who may or may not follow his legal advice – but his out-of-courtroom explanation for testimony that enraged critics and seemed to startle a panel of federal judges represented the first hint of a rational approach to this issue that I’ve heard from an elected official.

After testifying last month that people without cars, birth certificates or enough time to get a state-approved photo ID would “absolutely” be able vote by signing an affidavit saying they had a “reasonable impediment,” Mr. Wilson told The Associated Press that “We have balanced the interest of ensuring the integrity of the electoral system with the fundamental right of the individual to vote.”

What’s so maddening about this whole issue is that neither side has been willing to recognize any shades of gray.

Republicans refuse to acknowledge that any legitimate voters will be disenfranchised if the state requires them to produce a picture ID.

Which is absurd. The fact is that without the bypass provisions that Mr. Wilson seemed to be writing into the law as he was testifying, requiring a photo ID will prevent some legitimate voters from voting. Particularly older people who were not born in a hospital and for whom there never was created the birth certificate that is needed to obtain the ID cards that are accepted under the new law.

Democrats, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge that there could be any motive for such a requirement besides trying to disenfranchise Democratic voters – particularly African-Americans, but anyone who’s old and poor and doesn’t have ready access to transportation, let alone the documentation that most of us take for granted.

The fact is that many people in the middle class simply can’t comprehend that going down to the DMV to get a state ID card could be anything more than an inconvenience, or that getting a copy of your birth certificate could be impossible. Or that there might be a problem with your birth certificate that you have to go to court to get corrected, and you can’t afford to hire an attorney to handle your case.

And if you can’t comprehend such obstacles, there’s nothing racist or even partisan about expecting that, in order to vote, people should make the kind of basic demonstration of their identity that we have to make for pretty much any other kind of transaction.

Of course most people can’t see two sides to this issue because the photo ID requirement is not an idea that sprang organically from an actual problem. Although Rep. Alan Clemmons and others had tried for years to pass this law, it didn’t go anywhere until Republicans nationally fabricated a dire threat to justify what is in reality a preventive measure to guard against a theoretical problem.

Now that Republicans find themselves in a court of law rather than the court of public opinion, having to defend this solution to a theoretical problem against the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act, they are again turning to a national playbook. Like their counterparts in Texas – whose similar law was struck down last month by federal judges – S.C. lawmakers argue that our law will protect the public’s confidence in the electoral system, even though they acknowledge it won’t prevent the kind of election fraud that we know actually occurs.

I agree entirely that we need to protect public confidence in the electoral system. But how far do we go to restore confidence when it has been shaken by exaggeration? We might also restore confidence by having FBI agents seize the president and remove him from office, since a frighteningly large minority of the population insists on believing that he was born in another country and does not legitimately hold office.

Or, we might acknowledge that there are some very gullible people who are happy to believe whatever crazy claims bolster their preconceived notions. And we might decide that such beliefs don’t justify threatening other people’s fundamental rights in order to “correct” a problem that is tiny if it exists at all. And we might expect our politicians to stop trafficking in exaggeration and fabrication.

There’s a legitimate way to pass a voter ID law that would be nearly as tough as the one our legislature passed – and perhaps tougher than the one Mr. Wilson described to federal judges.

It starts with the sensible argument that in today’s increasingly urban, mobile society, poll workers are no longer likely to recognize everyone who comes into the polling place, so it’s reasonable to require voters to present the same sort of identification they have to present for all sorts of other routine activities.

But it also acknowledges that a small portion of citizens do not have one of the picture IDs that the state accepts and either cannot obtain one or cannot do so without a great deal of difficulty. And it acknowledges that since voting is different than boarding a plane or purchasing prescription drugs or cashing a check – it’s a fundamental right – we don’t have the right, absent a more compelling need, to require people for whom it is tremendously difficult to produce our required ID.

The bill the state Senate passed last year would have exempted anyone born before 1947 who already had a voter registration card – that is, the people most likely to not have a birth certificate or, even if they have one, to have a difficult time getting an approved ID. But Senate negotiators abandoned that provision after Mr. Wilson said it was likely unconstitutional because it treated different classes of voters differently. Of course, that’s something states are allowed to do if they can demonstrate a compelling interest in doing so.

Personally, I’d be more confident arguing that the state has a compelling interest in protecting legitimate voters from being disenfranchised than in trying to convince judges that we need to disenfranchise them in order to protect the election system from a theoretical threat. And I’d certainly feel better about making that argument.

Contact Scoppe, a columnist at The (Columbia) State, at cscoppe@thestate.com.