There are several significant inaccuracies in the recent editorial entitled “The cost of S.C.’s voter ID law.” Let’s set the record straight.
As attorney general of South Carolina, it is my responsibility to uphold our state’s laws in court. It is not my duty to decide whether a statute is a “good law” or a “bad law.” The Legislature decides which laws it passes, and the governor decides which bills are signed into law. As South Carolina’s attorney general, I make a decision to defend a law based on whether it is legal and constitutional.
The editorial neglected to note that after the voter ID law was passed and signed, my office went to great lengths to examine similar laws passed by other states and to analyze previous decisions issued by various courts, including the United States Supreme Court. Based on that extensive analysis, we were convinced our law was constitutionally and legally sound.
I sought to avoid expensive litigation by requesting administrative approval for the law from the Department of Justice (DOJ). When pre-clearance was denied, my staff then turned to federal court. DOJ fought us every step of the way, prolonging the process and driving up costs.
Ultimately, a 3-judge panel unanimously upheld the law. Their decision was so emphatic, even DOJ and the Interveners did not appeal it. In early January, the judges unanimously ruled South Carolina was the prevailing party in the case and said DOJ must pay the state nearly $54,000 in legal costs. (Attorney fees, which accounted for the vast majority of the cost of this trial, could not be recovered by law in the case.)
Had DOJ granted pre-clearance at the outset, as my office requested, it would only have cost the price of a postage stamp to mail a copy of the law to Washington. Instead, DOJ’s actions cost the citizens of South Carolina approximately $3.5 million. Why did the editorial not place the blame for the excessive cost where it rightfully belongs – at the DOJ’s feet?
The editorial also misstated a key fact. It said, “In October, a three-judge panel upheld the law, but only if the state allowed voters to opt out of the photo ID requirement by signing an affidavit that they had a ‘reasonable impediment’ to getting a photo ID.” This is categorically wrong.
The attorney general can neither add to nor remove from any law. It is my duty to defend an existing law “as is,” and not advocate for changes to it. The “reasonable impediment’ provision was in the voter ID law all along and was not added later by the judges or anyone else. In fact, the three judge court agreed with our interpretation that the reasonable impediment exception should, in doubtful cases, be applied broadly to insure citizens’ right to vote.
Also, when mentioning the lawsuit’s $3.5 million dollar price tag, the editorial said, “That was roughly three times Wilson’s original estimate of what the case would cost.” While this statement was accurate, it did not provide the context in which that estimate was made, or explain what DOJ did that drove up the cost so dramatically.
My original projection, made in January 2012, was the lawsuit would cost approximately $1 million. But I did not anticipate the extraordinary lengths to which DOJ was willing to go to fight South Carolina’s voter ID law. For example:
- DOJ and Interveners utilized more than three times the lawyers than the state did (36 to 11);
- DOJ required South Carolina to produce more than 165,000 pages of documents;
- it delayed proceedings by 120 days (via two 60-day delays);
- it even filed an emergency motion at 10:51 p.m. one night challenging the use of 12-point type font in a brief filed by the state.
Again, if the DOJ had granted pre-clearance at the outset, the state would have only had to pay 45 cents for a stamp to mail a copy of the law to Washington.
The fact remains, South Carolina won the lawsuit, and won it because my office’s analysis of the law’s constitutionality and legality were upheld by the court. Whether you agree with the law or not, it is legally valid.
Which begs the question: “Why did the editorial fail to hold the DOJ accountable for needlessly driving up the cost of the lawsuit and sticking South Carolinians with the bill for it?”
Alan Wilson is S.C. attorney general.