by Sheila Dugan
On May 11, 2011, the South Carolina General Assembly passed Act R54. The new law would require individuals to present photo identification to vote. Governor Nikki Haley signed the bill a week later. The Department of Justice has yet to pre-clear the new law, stating that it needs proof from South Carolina that Act R54 would not disenfranchise voters. Valid forms of identification include a South Carolina driver’s license, a passport, military identification, a voter registration card with a photograph, or another form of photographic identification from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Chris Whitmire, Director of Public Relations and Training at the South Carolina State Election Commission (SCSEC), spoke to me about the preparations taking place if the law is pre-cleared. These preparations include training county election officials, notifying registered voters without proper identification through direct mail, and a social media campaign about the new law. The General Assembly allocated $535,000 to the SCSEC for the voter education campaign and the creation of new voter registration cards that contain a photograph of the voter.
Registered voters would be able to obtain the new voter registration cards with the same documents they now use to register to vote (these include a photo ID or documents like a utility bill or pay stub with their address printed on it.) This makes the new identification easier to obtain than other government-issued forms of identification. Another unique feature of the new card is that it will not expire.
Most voters will not experience any changes if the Justice Department were to approve the law, according to Whitmire. Those voters suffering a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining the proper identification will be able to cast a provisional ballot after signing an affidavit. This provisional ballot will only be challenged if election officials suspect the person is lying about their identity.
ACT R54 was met with a flurry of protest from groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the League of Women Voters, and from Democratic elected officials. Opponents of the law complained that some registered voters would find it difficult to arrange transportation to the DMV or find the documentation to obtain proper identification. Governor Haley and Kevin Shwedo, the director of the DMV, offered free rides to the DMV in response to these criticisms.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Carolina is playing a key role in opposing the new law. In September, I spoke with Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU’s South Carolina office, about the proposed changes to the state’s voting laws.
When asked why the ACLU opposed the new voter ID law, Middleton spoke about how the law would dilute minority voting strength. The state’s election commission now estimates 217,000 registered voters do not have a driver’s license or photo ID, which is much larger than its initial estimate. The new law would be especially burdensome for low-income African-American voters who would find it difficult to obtain the documents, like a birth certificate, that they need for a government-issued ID. Middleton also expressed concern about the impact the new voting law would have on student voters. College-issued IDs are not a valid, which would prevent many out-of-state students from voting.
Middleton dismissed the notion the new law would prevent in-person voter fraud, stating that there is little proof that this routinely happens in South Carolina. The percentage of registered voters without a driver’s license or government-issued IDs is over 10% in Allendale, Beaufort, Jasper, and Marlboro counties. Preventing these individuals from voting is bound to have a major impact on a close election, Ms. Middleton explained.
Photo IDs are required for many activities these days, from boarding a plane to purchasing a six-pack of beer. When asked if it was unreasonable to ask an individual to present an ID to vote, Middleton said, “It’s not a constitutional right to buy Sudafed or become a frequent flier.” She continued, “People fought and died to win the right to vote.”
Middleton admitted the majority of residents in South Carolina would not find these demands to be unreasonable. The ACLU is fighting for the rights of a sizable minority of voters who do not have passports for vacations and work abroad, find it difficult to navigate the state bureaucracy due to low literacy levels, or have incomplete birth records.
Calling the rise of voter ID laws across the nation an “alarming trend,” Middleton spoke about South Carolina’s troublesome history of suppressing minority voting, which included poll taxes and literacy tests. Middleton called the recent measures “more sophisticated and less-obvious,” but will have a considerable impact on the ability for many minorities and low-income individuals to vote.
- The ACLU’s letter to the Department of Justice can be read here. It contains many of the points mentioned in this post.
- The Department of Justice’s letter about the voter ID law.
Sheila Dugan is pursuing her Masters in Public Policy at William & Mary. She did her own reporting for this article.