Scoppe: SC voter ID law not quite what it seems

Associate EditorNovember 1, 2013 

— VOTERS WHO go to the polls Tuesday to cast a ballot in the Columbia City Council election or the Richland Library bond referendum or other municipal elections will be greeted by giant red posters that declare, in bold print: “VOTING IN PERSON NOW REQUIRES PHOTO ID.”

The message is of a piece with the legal notice that ran in our newspaper back in August, which announced that anyone who shows up at the polls without one of the five state-approved photo identification cards “may cast a provisional ballot that is counted only if the voter brings a valid and current photograph identification to the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration before the results of the election are certified.”

I don’t mean to pick on the Richland County Election Commission for putting out misleading information. It is, after all, following the lead of the State Election Commission, which produced the posters and displays the “must have photo ID to vote” message on its homepage, and even in its more detailed explanation leaves unsophisticated voters thinking that’s a requirement for voting.

It’s not.

To be fair, both state and local election officials have a real challenge before them, and Tuesday’s election will provide their first big test in the Midlands. State law does in fact require people to have either a S.C. driver’s license or ID card issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, a federal military ID, a U.S. passport or one of the new photo voter registration cards that local election commissions have been issuing to people who request them under the new law.

But thanks to a federal court order, people can’t be turned away from the polls if they don’t have one of them. They can’t even be subjected to the normal provisional ballot requirements.

Instead, they need merely certify that they have a “reasonable impediment” for not having a photo ID, such as lack of a birth certificate or transportation or “any other obstacle you find reasonable.” That provision, not in the statute but in the court order, prohibits election officials from questioning what voters define as “reasonable.” (Voters do, however, have to bring their photo-less voter registration card in order to qualify for the “reasonable impediment” exception.)

I’ve never had a problem with requiring a photo ID to vote. In today’s increasingly urban, mobile society, poll workers are no longer likely to recognize everyone who comes to the polling place, so it’s reasonable to require voters to present the same sort of identification they have to present for all sorts of other routine activities. Not because we’ve been plagued by fraud. Simply as a precaution. Going forward.

What always troubled me — and, it turned out, federal judges — was the punitive way the law was written: without any consideration that there are people in our state — not as many as critics believe, but not an insignificant number — who are S.C. citizens, who have been voting for decades, who do not have any of the state-approved photo ID cards and who would have a difficult time getting one. They tend to be older, from the era when many people — particularly poor people, particularly black people — were born at home.

It would have been easy enough to grandfather them in. After a few years, they all would have died, and the law would have covered everyone, without depriving any legitimate voters of the right to vote.

When the Legislature declined to do that, a federal court made the law much, much more permissive than what I believe the Legislature could have gotten away with if the law’s supporters had been willing to compromise just a little bit. For instance, the court noted approvingly that a 2005 federal commission co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter recommended that, after a two-election grace period, all voters should be required to present a photo ID. But the Legislature wouldn’t include that sort of temporary grace period either, so now there’s a never-ending grace period.

As the court explained in its October 2012 order: “At first blush, one might have thought South Carolina had enacted a very strict photo ID law. Much of the initial rhetoric surrounding the law suggested as much. But that rhetoric was based on a misunderstanding of how the law would work. Act R54, as it has been authoritatively construed by South Carolina officials, does not have the effects that some expected and some feared.”

But while I’ve never been fond of misleading voters about what’s in a law, that’s neither here nor there. What’s here is an election, and efforts to make sure that legitimate voters aren’t scared away from the polls.

Richland Elections Director Harold Jackson told me last week that his staff had gone to 20 to 40 events, explaining the law and taking hundreds of pictures for new photo voter registration cards. The League of Women Voters also has been holding forums to explain the law.

People can go to their county election office anytime to get a photo registration card. And Mr. Jackson’s staff will continue going into the community to make photo IDs after the election.

Unlike a state ID card from the DMV, voters don’t have to bring a birth certificate to get a photo voter registration card.

The irony here is that the law’s never-say-compromise supporters were adamant that they had to protect the ballot box from people who couldn’t prove they were U.S. citizens. Yet all voters have to bring to their election office for a new photo voter registration card is their old photo-less ID cards — the ones those legislators insisted weren’t good enough.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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