The Senate opened debate Wednesday sharply divided on a voter identification bill and ended the day just as divided. Democrats and Republicans are at polar opposites on whether S.C. should require voters to present a photo ID in order to vote.
Right now, voters can cast a ballot by presenting either a voter registration card, which doesn't have a picture, or a state-issued ID such as a driver's license.
Senate Democrats, who are putting on a full court press against the Republican proposal, say the bill, which would require a photo ID in addition to a voter registration card, would block 178,000 people from the polls, or 6.9 percent of the 2.6 million people registered to vote. Those voters would have to take the additional step of getting a state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot.
Democrats say the bulk of the people who would be put at risk of losing that vote are elderly and poor, living in the counties with the highest unemployment rates, the lowest education, and smallest incomes.
"I will never vote to disenfranchise anybody who is lawfully and legally registered to vote in this state," said Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, Senate Minority Leader.
"You're unregistering 178,000 people - that's what you're doing," Land said. "You're pulling the rug out from under them."
The House-passed Republican bill makes it a requirement to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot, and requires a poll manager to match the photo ID with the person attempting to vote. Backers of the bill say it is a deterrent against voter fraud.
Democrats also are at odds over the measure because it establishes a 16-day early voting period, cutting down the existing 30-day absentee voting period currently in place.
Some Democrats, such as Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, and Sen. Ralph Anderson, D-Greenville, said race is at the heart of the push for photo ID.
"We say we want people to vote, then when they do, we pass laws to disenfranchise them. Is that what we want?" asked Nicholson.
Nicholson, elected in 2008, rarely speaks out on the Senate floor.
"We are on the brink of taking away one of our most precious rights, and I take great exception to that," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, adding the bill could affect nearly 19,000 people he represents in Richland County, and 1,900 in neighboring Kershaw County.
"I fail to see the impediment this imposes to anyone in this day and age," said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who supports the bill.
Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said people living in poor counties with traditionally high unemployment rates are more likely to have transportation difficulties in getting state-issued identifications, and have done nothing wrong to be forced by Republicans to have to.
Democrats said Republicans have presented no evidence there is a need to require photo IDs to vote, and said the U.S. Justice Department is unlikely to agree to the proposed change, particularly given the state's history in denying its residents their legal right to vote.