This GOP-Backed Voter ID Law Could Be A Big Problem For South Carolina

"They feel like it's a conspiracy to get people not to go to the polls."
Gov. Nikki Haley has been criticized for misleading South Carolinians as to how strict the state's voter ID law is.
Gov. Nikki Haley has been criticized for misleading South Carolinians as to how strict the state's voter ID law is.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

When South Carolinians cast ballots in the presidential primaries this month, they will confront a new voter ID law that is in place for the first time during a presidential election year. Some voters don't understand it, and others don’t know it exists.

"This is new? When did this happen? This year?" asked Richard Crawford, a senior at South Carolina State University, a historically black school.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed the state's voter ID law in 2011, and after a legal battle with the feds, it became effective in January 2013. But as Republicans get ready to vote on Saturday, and Democrats a week after, progressives worry that Haley's administration has not adequately educated South Carolinians about the requirements.

"People are confused ... but there's a way around that, and it's just as simple as educating voters on what the new law is," said Jason Perkey, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "The governor's done nothing," he added.

In fact, the governor has been criticized for exaggerating the law’s strictness. In 2011, Haley suggested that ID is necessary to vote, the same way it is on an airplane. During this month's primaries, a state election commission poster, which a spokesman confirmed is distributed to all polling places, says in large letters: "Photo ID requirements now in effect." But ID isn't mandatory if you don't have one, and the poster only says that in small print. (Another poster designed to be posted outside polling places has bigger font.)

"To just focus on that single poster and ignore everything election officials have done to educate voters about Photo ID just isn't fair," said Chris Whitmire, director of public information and training for the South Carolina State Election Commission.

"We were very careful on our materials not to say 'Photo ID Required' or 'You must have Photo ID to Vote,'" he added.

A poster distributed to South Carolina polling places implies that photo ID is necessary to vote.
A poster distributed to South Carolina polling places implies that photo ID is necessary to vote.
South Carolina State Election Commission

If a person is unable to obtain one of five forms of accepted ID, he or she can sign an affidavit explaining why -- possible reasons include "work schedule" and "lack of transportation" -- and bring a voter registration card without a photo. The ballot will automatically count unless someone can prove the person is lying. In the 2014 general election, about 130 voters used this option, and all of those ballots counted, according to a survey done by the state election commission.

It's unknown how many voters were deterred from showing up because they assumed they needed ID. Whitmire said he hadn't heard from any voters that said they didn't vote because they didn't have an ID and thought they would be denied.

"That's the stuff you don't see," said Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU in South Carolina. "If they're deterred, then generally, they're not there. Some negatives are hard to prove."

There's another important provision in small print. If a voter has a photo ID and forgot it, he or she may only cast a provisional ballot, which will not count unless the person brings the ID to the county elections office in time, which in the case of a presidential primary, is the following Thursday. In 2014, of 86 provisional ballots that were submitted across 34 counties, 77.9 percent were not counted because the person did not show ID later.

When the law was in effect in 2014, at least some voters had issues. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which was part of the team that litigated the Voting Rights Act case against the law, tracked 475 calls to its South Carolina hotline, about 68 percent of which came from African-Americans. Of those calls, 12 percent were inquiries about voter ID, and almost 7 percent had to do with ID problems.

Haley's office did not respond to questions about its outreach. The state election commission told The Huffington Post it has conducted an extensive voter education program that includes ads, posters, handouts and seminars.

"I believe the vast majority of voters either have one of the photo IDs or are aware of the exceptions," Whitmire said. "With that said, I'm sure there are some that are not."

Whitmire said that even if voters come to the polling place knowing nothing, well-trained poll managers will give them the information they need to make their ballots count.

The year the law was signed, almost 240,000 voters in the state did not have the right DMV-issued ID, with minority registered voters almost 20 percent more likely to be missing one than white voters. The Justice Department, which reviewed state voting rules changes prior to the U.S. Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, rejected the law, noting that it would have a disproportionate impact on minority voters. In 2012, a federal panel upheld it, on the condition that the state broadly interpret the "reasonable impediment" provision, where voters explain why they couldn't get an ID.

The South Carolina system is significantly less strict than laws in other states. But it could still end up hurting voter turnout, progressives worry. "We won the battle against the photo ID, but we lost the war against voter suppression," said Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network. "Because of the confusion."

We weren't able to confirm whether Crawford, the student at Thursday's town hall for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, was registered to vote in South Carolina or another state. But he was clearly taken aback by the law. "That's crazy, has this been in the news or something?"

Another student and a South Carolina State University employee suggested photo ID is 100 percent necessary. "I've heard that you have to have a South Carolina ID to vote, and so on a college campus, a lot of people don't have South Carolina IDs, so a lot of people won't be able to vote," said Lashandra Morgan, who works in the university's department of biological sciences.

"They feel like it's a conspiracy to get people not to go to the polls," she added.

Scott Conroy contributed reporting from South Carolina.

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