The Senate reached a compromise Thursday on a controversial Voter ID bill that phases in over two years new requirements for a picture ID in order for a person to vote in South Carolina.
The bill also establishes a new 15-day early voting period prior to elections, maintains walk-in absentee voting for 30 days prior to an election and retains mail-in absentee voting beginning at 45 days before an election.
The photo identification requirement takes effect Jan. 2, 2012, and the State Election Commission must begin issuing voter registration cards with photo ID by July, 1, 2011, pending state funding being made available for the cards.
The system carries an educational, public outreach component, so that currently-registered voters for whom obtaining a photo identification may pose a difficulty, could be assisted.
The compromise proposal must be cleared by U.S. Justice Department and still must go back to the S.C. House for its consideration and passage.
"This is another example of the Senate at its finest hour," said Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, Senate president pro-tempore.
"There were some strong feelings in this body. This is one of the most divisive issues I've seen come before this body," he said.
Republicans were pushing the original bill, which mandated a photo ID and set early voting at 16 days prior to an election. They contended the new law was needed to pre-empt potential voter fraud in the state.
Democrats rebelled, saying the measure was a strike to impair access to a basic American right - the right to access to the ballot box.
The sometimes strident debate was overlaid with the state's long history of denying that basic right to many of its residents, including African-Americans.
Democrats produced figures from the State Elections Commission which showed 178,000 registered voters, or 7 percent of the state's 2.6 million voters, did not possess a state-issued photo identification.
They argued those voters, including the poor and the elderly, might be stymied in the short term by additional hurdles put in place requiring new proofs of identification.
Democrats, outmanned in the Senate 27-19, carted in 700 to 1,000 amendments designed to stop the originally-proposed legislation, for which they said no public outcry existed.
Democrats were stung when the Senate voted last week against placing the Voter ID bill in a priority spot for debate, and Martin, Senate rules chairman, in compliance with the rules, put the measure on priority anyway.
Senators struck the deal at the end of a day in which tensions flared on the Senate floor.
Discussion of a bill concerning jury pools for magistrates escalated into a confrontation between Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens.
The confrontation caused the Senate to go into an extended afternoon recess, though lawmakers said the confrontation was unrelated to work beginning on a serious compromise.
"What occurred with the flare-up on the floor today brought to my attention the need for this Senate to step back, and not rush so fast, and not be so intense, and to listen to what the other person has to say, and not consider it so contentiously," McConnell said after a compromise jelled.
"I think the reality that we could have been here a long time debating this, and the uncertainty about which side would prevail, and with that degree of uncertainty, I think both sides decided to sit down and see if we could come to some agreement," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who, along with Malloy, wrote the compromise.
"That's why it was necessary to have 1,000-and-some-odd amendments," said Malloy, "because if you're not able sit down and come together with an agreement, then you've got to be able to be heard from the minority view. Since you're not in the majority, you don't set the agenda."
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