Lawyers for South Carolina have begun their pitch to convince a special judicial panel in Washington that the state’s voter identification law promotes integrity in the electoral process and does not discriminate against minorities.

The U.S. Justice Department refused to approve South Carolina’s voter ID law, which critics contend will hinder minorities from exercising the right to vote. DOJ lawyers and opponents of the law said the current laws in place are sufficient to combat voting fraud.

South Carolina is one of a handful of states DOJ ruled against in the growing debate over the propriety of certain voter identification initiatives that Republican-controlled legislatures enacted in recent years. The state of Texas also sued DOJ over its decision to block that state’s controversial voter identification law. A judicial panel hasn’t yet ruled.

“The facts in this case, including the testimony you will hear this week, will show that South Carolina’s voter ID law was enacted for important and legitimate purposes,” Bancroft partner H. Christopher Bartolomucci, representing South Carolina, said during his August 27 opening statement. “The voter ID law was enacted by South Carolina to help prevent election fraud and to enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.”

The law, Bartolomucci said in court, which the governor signed in May 2011, contains four provisions to mitigate against any burden: free photo ID cards, aggressive voter education, provisional ballots and the ability to file a reasonable impediment or religious affidavits. A person can cast a provisional ballot that will count so long as the person provides a photo ID before the election results are certified.

Four former or current members of the South Carolina General Assembly are expected to testify, including Speaker Bobby Harrell and Lt. Governor Glenn McConnell. Associate Professor M.V. “Trey” Hood of the University of Georgia’s political science department is expected to testify for South Carolina.

Hood’s research, Bartolomucci said, found that 95 percent of the 2.8 million registered South Carolina voters already possess a driver’s license, military ID, passport or other photo card.

“South Carolina has the responsibility to ensure that eligible registered voters have the opportunity to vote,” Bartolomucci said in court. “The state also has the responsibility to ensure that law abiding voters are not disadvantaged by those who would cheat the system.”

Bradley Heard of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division urged the judicial panel — U.S. District Judges Colleen Kollar-Kotelly and John Bates, sitting with Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — to reject South Carolina’s bid for clearance of its voter identification law.

South Carolina, Heard said, has more than 170,000 registered voters who lack an accepted identification form. A disproportionate number of those voters, Heard told the panel today, are members of racial minority groups.

The burdens imposed by the voter ID law, Heard said, “are material enough that they will likely cause some minority voters not to exercise the franchise.”

DOJ lawyers said in court papers that South Carolina pushed for its voter identification law “despite the fact that bill proponents had no evidence for the core justifications they assert — the need to detect or prevent voter impersonation fraud or a lack of confidence in the electoral process.”

Political science Professor Charles Stewart III of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Theodore Arrington, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, are expected to testify for the Justice Department.

Contact Mike Scarcella at mscarcella@alm.com.