Was it coincidence or was it destiny? In this state, which is eternally reliving its past, the two seem indistinguishable. On the day that state Attorney Gen. Alan Wilson swore to defend South Carolina's new Voter ID law in federal court, the General Assembly was debating a new piece of legislation that would effectively shut down voter registration drives in the state.
The bill in question — H. 4549 — would stop voter registration drives by creating burdensome regulations and stiff penalties for violations, up to $1,000. Voter registration drives are as traditional as Fourth of July parades, and they have been organized for generations by the League of Women Voters, churches, and even Scouts trying to earn their citizenship badges.
But that will likely be a thing of the past if our GOP-controled legislature prevails. The bill was pushed through the Judiciary Committee without even consulting the state Election Commission. The man doing the pushing was Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Myrtle Beach), who is on record as telling his constituents after the 2008 election that the GOP would do whatever it could to keep Democrats from showing up again in such threatening numbers in future elections.
The solution to all those Democrats on Election Day was the Voter ID law, which requires voters to show a state-issued photo ID at the polls. The ostensible purpose of the law was to prevent voter fraud, but Republicans have not been able to present a recent case of voter fraud that would have been prevented by a photo ID. What we do know — and it is confirmed by the Election Commission and the League of Women Voters — is that the law could potentially disenfranchise up to 200,000 mostly poor and rural (re: black) voters. It will also thin out college students and the elderly, all groups who have a stronger likelihood of voting Democratic.
The U.S. Justice Department immediately struck down the Voter ID law under the review provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Wilson went to court to defend it. The Post and Courier has since reported that this bit of litigation is going to cost our cash-strapped state up to a million dollars. Now with the General Assembly moving ahead with another voter suppression law, it looks like we will see more litigation and more unnecessary expense.
H. 4549 does not address any recognized problem. The regulations and penalties imposed by the law have the ostensible purpose of keeping the registration process clean and open, but there have been no documented cases of people being improperly registered. The sole purpose of the law seems to be scaring people away from the civic goal of registering citizens to vote. Voter registration drives in schools, churches, and shopping malls are aimed at people who normally do not vote — and perhaps have never voted. Again, this profile tends to describe both young and minority demographics, two Democratic voting blocks.
Something else the Voter ID law has in common with this new voter-suppression bill is that both came out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing, pro-business organization created to bring Republican state legislators and business leaders together to promote their mutual interests. ALEC has championed laws supporting private education vouchers and curtailing the power of unions. One of the biggest goals ALEC has worked on is having states pass harsher sentencing laws with the purpose of putting more people in jail for longer periods. This is done at the behest of the private prison industry, a big ALEC supporter. And of course, another goal has been to get Democratic voters off the voter rolls, assuring Republican victories in state and federal elections. Florida has already passed this piece of ALEC-sponsored legislation. Now it's South Carolina's turn.
The tragedy, of course, is not just with this fraudulent bill and the fraudulent men and women who want to pass it. The tragedy is that this is just the latest example of our state waging war on itself. The history of this little state is the story of the dominant group trying to punish, deprive, and exclude all others. Whether it's Jim Crow laws, the exclusion of women from the Citadel, the denial of full rights to gays and lesbians, or trumped-up laws to disenfranchise voters, it is a story that has been going on for generations. Other states take measures to punish their minorities, of course, but probably none does it more frequently, more sweepingly than South Carolina. It is this self-loathing and self-destruction that has put this state in a 19th-century downward spiral, that makes us look abhorrent and intolerant to the world, that holds us back economically and socially, and that ultimately poisons our souls.