Post and Courier, Charleston
January 6, 2013

This year’s special election in the 1st Congressional District will be the first major election with the state’s new Voter ID law in effect, and election officials hope to minimize any confusion.

It’s a big change for a small number of people,” State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. “Most people won’t notice anything new because we know most people vote with their driver’s license.”

The new law, which a federal court allowed to take effect Jan. 1, requires voters to bring a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, to the polls on Election Day.

Previously, voters also could cast ballots if they had their voter registration card, which does not have a picture.

But the new law also allows voters to get a photo ID at their local election office — and to vote a provisional ballot if they have a reasonable excuse why they could not get such an ID.

The new system will get its first test Tuesday when Branchville, a small Orangeburg County town, holds its municipal elections.

But this year’s 1st District race — triggered by Gov. Nikki Haley’s selection of U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to serve the next two years of former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint’s term — will involve many thousands more voters.

“It will be the first big election under the new photo ID rules, so we’ll be doing a lot of voter education,” Whitmire said.

Election officials in the 1st District counties, which include Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester, will hold at least one public meeting about the new rules before the March 19 primary. The special election is May 7.

The new law triggered a bitter partisan fight. Republicans argued the change would curb voter fraud and said such IDs are required to buy cold medicine or board an airplane.

Democrats said there’s no evidence voter fraud is a problem in South Carolina and said the law aims to curb turnout among the elderly and poor.

Charleston County Democratic Chairman Richard Hricik said the law is more likely to affect Democratic voters, but added, “I don’t know what impact it’s going to have.”

Hricik said he is glad the new system will be tested in a special election instead of a general election, where the lines are longer.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that two months isn’t very long for a public education campaign.

“Our concern will be confusion in the voting public and confusion in the voting places,” she said. “We don’t want people not to vote because they’re confused, particularly about what ‘reasonable impediment’ means, or because they’re not sure their vote will actually count.”

Voters may cast provisional ballots if they sign a paper saying they had a “reasonable impediment” from getting a photo ID, such as job demands, an illness or lack of transportation. But if someone challenges whether a voter was being truthful about having an impediment, then election officials could decide that person’s vote shouldn’t count.

The ACLU was among the groups that challenged the constitutionality of the new law — a challenge that ended with last fall’s federal court ruling.

Middleton said the organization will continue to monitor the law as election officials and poll workers put it in place.

“We would like to see the process be handled in the fairest way possible that doesn’t disenfranchise people and that gives the most generous understanding to the ‘reasonable impediment’ provision,” she said.

Republicans, who pushed for the law in the wake of a record-breaking turnout in the 2008 election, downplayed the significance of the change.

Matt Moore, executive director of the South Carolina GOP, said the party would try to inform voters of the new law, particularly through its email lists and social media.

“We want anyone who can legally vote to vote. If someone does not have an ID, they will be allowed to vote, but we’ll be taking a look at all the votes that are cast,” Moore said. “We think this is a common-sense safeguard that can prevent the most common problems we see.”