Maybe it was idle curiosity. Maybe it was outright espionage. Whatever it was, it was perfectly legal.
Shortly after the 2008 election, Ann Beser and Steve Chand, of Myrtle Beach, saw the notice in the local paper that there would be a big breakfast confab of Republicans in Georgetown. Beser and Chand are not Republicans, but they are white, and that was good enough. So these two retirees drove down from Myrtle Beach to Georgetown to have grits and eggs with the GOPers.
Republicans at that meeting were in a surly mood. They had just lost the White House and the U.S. Senate. In South Carolina, Barack Obama had carried 45 percent of the popular vote — the most of any Democratic presidential candidate in decades — and inspired record black voter turnout.
Perhaps the moodiest of them all was Jill Kelso, who had lost the House District 108 race in Georgetown County to Vida Miller by a margin of 256 votes out of more than 17,000 cast. One of the GOPers addressing the room that day was Rep. Alan Clemmons, of Horry County, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Clemmons denounced the "bus loads of voters" who came to the polls in Georgetown County the day before the election to cast absentee ballots, perhaps tipping the balance in Kelso's election and others.
Clemmons didn't have to say who was on those buses. To the great consternation of white politicians, black churches have been using the vehicles to get their people to the polls for generations. Among certain whites, the phrase "bus loads of voters" — like "welfare queen" — has become code for black.
"We do not have early voting in this state," Clemmons declared, correctly enough. These bus loads of voters were abusing the system, he said, casting absentee ballots. Absentee voting is meant as a convenience for those who would not be able to vote on Election Day, he said. Beser got the clear message that Clemmons thought it was time for the General Assembly to do something about the bus loads of voters.
As eager as he was to fulminate about voting rights and wrongs in front of a room full of GOPers, Clemmons declined to return my call to discuss the issue for this column. Had he called back, I would have challenged him on his accusations: The bus loads of voters were perfectly within their rights to cast absentee ballots at the county voter registration office the day before the election. Perhaps they were going to be working on Election Day, or maybe they were going to be manning the polls at other sites and would not be able to cast votes in their home precincts.
That was the reason Beser and Chand cast absentee ballots in Myrtle Beach. And when they went to the voter registration office on the day before the election, they found the place packed with absentee voters. "People were obviously taking advantage of it, and it was obviously working," Beser told me.
Working too well, many Republicans believe. Their response — though it was three years in the making — is the controversial Voter ID law. The League of Women Voters and the Associated Press have each studied the issue and concluded that close to 200,000 South Carolinians — mostly poor, mostly black — may be disenfranchised by this law. Our Republican governor and legislators still try to explain with perfectly straight faces that presenting a picture ID is the only way to deter voter fraud at the polls. What they cannot explain is where this voter fraud is taking place.
Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the S.C. State Election Commission, told NPR two weeks ago that voter fraud has never been a problem. "We have no record of any confirmed case of that in South Carolina in recent history," he said.
So why the rush to fix a problem that doesn't exist? For the same reason that dozens of Republican state legislatures are doing it around the country. According to Rolling Stone magazine, a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council has provided GOP legislators with draft legislation based on Indiana's ID requirement: "In five states that passed such laws in the past year — Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin — the measures were sponsored by legislators who are members of ALEC."
What we are seeing in South Carolina is not isolated, nor is it an example of local whimsy. It is part of a coordinated, nationwide campaign by Republicans to take the vote from American citizens. It took the federal courts to throw out poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s. Let's hope they are up to the task of preserving democracy in the 21st century.