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A stand for voting rights

The U.S. Department of Justice is taking a hard line with states that pass restrictive voting laws, which is good news for disadvantaged Americans who want their right to vote protected.

Using its powers under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department announced last week that it's blocking a South Carolina law requiring voters to produce government-issued photo identification at the polls. The state is one of several that have imposed such restrictions on the flimsy grounds that they will discourage the extremely rare crime of impersonating a registered voter.

The restrictions are most likely to affect people without a driver's license — generally the poor, young, and old. They will be forced to jump through time-consuming and potentially costly hoops to keep their right to vote, all to solve a problem that hardly seems to exist.

Incoming Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer made that point recently in decrying Republican efforts to pass similar restrictions in the Pennsylvania legislature. Singer's job is to promote widespread, informed, and honest participation in elections, and unlike many of her predecessors in the office, she seems to be taking it seriously.

In South Carolina, with a history of legalized discrimination and many poor minority voters, the new requirement would wrongly discourage the exercise of the most fundamental right in our democracy. Pennsylvania is not covered by all the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the Justice Department's move lends support to Pennsylvanians, like Singer, who are opposing such restrictions here.

Though their details vary from state to state, voter ID laws all tend to discourage a certain type of voter from showing up on Election Day. It's no coincidence that these new burdens on young and disadvantaged voters, who generally lean Democratic, are being imposed by state governments controlled by Republicans. And it's no coincidence that the Voting Rights Act is under attack by conservative judicial activists, who want the Supreme Court to strike it down.

The court gave carte blanche to burdensome voter ID requirements in a 2008 case from Indiana. It did so even though Indiana, like South Carolina, could not document a single case of voter impersonation, and the new rules immediately disenfranchised at least 40,000 eligible voters. In Pennsylvania, as many as 700,000 could be stripped of their voting rights if legislators proceed with a similar measure.

In a nation where only about half the eligible population shows up 41% in 2010 midterms; 62% in 2008for presidential elections, our leaders should be doing all they can to encourage voting, not making it harder.