Throughout most of its history, South Carolina has made the right to vote rare and precious. Before the Civil War, only white male property owners were granted suffrage. The state Constitution of 1895 established literacy tests and other barriers to keep blacks from the polls.
This was during the bad old days of white Democratic domination in the South. That came to an end with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president. Blacks registered to vote in unprecedented numbers across the South, and whites responded by bolting to the Republican Party. By 1970, the political face of the South had been utterly transformed.
But some things never change. Yes, blacks vote and hold political office in greater numbers than ever before, and Republicans dominate Southern politics as surely as Democrats did a half-century ago. But white people are still trying to keep blacks from voting; they just use different methods to do it.
To be fair, this is not an exclusively Southern phenomenon. For some years the national Republican Party has been engaged in an insidious strategy to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor, and elderly around the nation.
Republican-majority legislatures in Georgia, Indiana, and other states have passed voter ID laws, ostensibly to protect the democratic process from voter fraud. What they have failed to do is prove that there is any widespread or systematic voter fraud which would merit such a remedy.
In the week before last November's election, The Nation reported that in some states, "the Republican Party has made plans to challenge the legitimacy of thousands of voters using a notorious, legally dubious technique known as 'caging,' whereby the party sends out nonforwardable mail to low-income or minority households (the people likely to move frequently or be victims of subprime mortgage foreclosures) and uses returned envelopes to question the eligibility of the addressees."
Former S.C. House District 115 GOP Rep. Wallace Scarborough did something similar when he tried to overturn his defeat by Democrat Anne Peterson Hutto in November. Scarborough argued that people who received their mail some place other than their residence were committing voter fraud. The Charleston County Board of Elections and the S.C. Election Commission rejected his complaint, and Scarborough sought to have his House colleagues throw out the election, before finally abandoning the challenge. (See The Good Fight, Dec. 24, 2008 and Jan. 14, 2009.)
According to The Nation, George W. Bush's Justice Department made a priority of going after alleged cases of individual voter fraud, while showing little interest in protecting the voting rights of minorities, as the Voting Rights Act mandates it to do. Indeed, the Bush Justice Department brought down a firestorm on its head by firing nine U.S. attorneys. It now appears that some of those attorneys were fired because they refused to pursue voter fraud cases when there was not enough evidence.
There is also strong reason to believe that the national Republican Party was laying the groundwork to claim massive voter fraud in the weeks leading up to the November election. The GOP and the right-wing media filled the airways and op-ed pages with bogus claims that ACORN, the national advocacy group for lower- and middle-class homeowners and workers, was involved in a vast campaign to fraudulently register voters.
If the presidential election had been close — or had turned on one or two key states — the Republicans would still be fighting to throw out votes and put John McCain in the White House. As it was, Barack Obama defeated McCain decisively in both the popular vote and Electoral College. Even Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly could not spin such a defeat into an ACORN conspiracy.
In South Carolina, Republicans were stunned last November when they lost two General Assembly seats and came surprisingly close to losing the First District congressional seat held by Henry Brown. These Democratic victories were the result of a huge black voter turnout, made possible, in part, by two weeks of early and absentee voting prior to Election Day.
Now state Republicans are striking back with legislation designed to limit early and absentee voting and to require voters to have a photo ID. Of course, they are doing this in the name of preventing voter fraud, though no one has demonstrated any systematic voter fraud in this state. What this legislation will actually do is limit voting access for the poor, elderly, and minorities. That is why the state branches of AARP, Common Cause, NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and ACLU are rallying to stop House Bill 3418 and Senate Bill 334.
Contact your state representative and senator. Tell them they should be making it easier, not harder, to vote in South Carolina.