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'Reasonable Impediment' Clause Becomes Focus Of S.C. Voter ID Law Hearing

Some interesting testimony Tuesday in the federal trial over South Carolina's new voter ID law.

It came from the state's election director, Marci Andino. She was explaining her plans for implementing the law if it gets approved by the court, and how poll workers would be instructed to handle a controversial provision involving something called "reasonable impediment."

The provision would allow citizens without a valid photo ID to vote — but only if they sign an affidavit saying they had a "reasonable impediment" that kept them from getting the proper identification. The meaning of "reasonable impediment" is so vague in the law that opponents have complained that it's basically meaningless.

But Andino said it could describe some physical or medical obstacle, and could include things such as a lack of transportation to get to a motor vehicle office or election office. She also said a voter could legitimately use the excuse that he or she didn't have enough time to get a photo ID before the election.

The ballots cast by these individuals would be provisional, but Andino said they would eventually be counted — unless someone could show that an individual had lied.

Essentially, she said it was up to the voter to determine what was a "reasonable impediment" and that she was instructing poll managers to accept the voter's explanation.

Members of the three-judge panel in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., appeared surprised.

Considering there's only a short time before the Nov. 6 election, does that mean every South Carolina voter without a photo ID would have a "reasonable impediment" getting one, asked U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh?

"Yes, that's possible," Andino replied.

Pressed by U.S. District Judge John Bates, Andino said that she didn't think the law would disenfranchise anyone already legally allowed to vote.

That might come as a surprise to opponents who argue that tens of thousands of voters lack the required ID and could have trouble getting one, so they'll be unable to vote if the new law is upheld.

South Carolina is in court defending the 2011 law because the Justice Department refused to clear it, saying that it could discriminate against minority voters who are less likely to have the required photo identification. South Carolina is one of several states that under the federal Voting Rights Act need Justice Department approval for voting law changes because of a history of discrimination.

Another witness Tuesday was South Carolina Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Republican, who was a leader in the state Senate at the time the voter ID law was passed. He said he and several other senators pushed for a broader bill that would have allowed voters to show ID from their government jobs at the polls and would also have allowed early voting. Those provisions were struck from the bill in the House.

McConnell said the "political heat was on" from Tea Party and Republican Party leaders to pass the more restrictive measure.

"I thought our bill was a superior bill," he said of the less restrictive measure, adding that it had bipartisan and biracial support and implying it would have faced much less opposition from the Justice Department. "Who was to complain?" he asked.

The hearing is expected to continue for the rest of the week.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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