Voter ID bill rallies right, riles left 

One vote, one mess

The fight over a voter ID bill pits the irrational expectation of systemic abuse against the philosophical principle that democracy works best when we don't require our voters to walk and chew gum at the same time. Republicans want elections to be just as arduous as buying a Playboy, while Democrats want it to be as easy as purchasing a box of Cracker Jacks.

Republicans say they're protecting the right of legitimate voters in the face of an elaborate, yet unlikely, Bosom Buddies-type plot where someone walks in with grandma's registration card and votes twice for a South Carolina Democrat who, let's be honest, will likely lose anyway. Meanwhile, Democrats are furious at the idea of one more hurdle in front of the voting booth. If you're looking for folks who, for one reason or another, don't have a picture ID, they're likely living in low-income neighborhoods and unable or unlikely to hit the DMV to get an ID before they head to the polling place to vote for a Democrat who, again, likely will lose anyway.

Many people already voluntarily show their driver's licenses to poll workers when they're voting. This bill has little affect on them personally. It's the roughly 200,000 folks without state IDs that concerns opponents of the bill.

As approved by the state House of Representatives on a party line vote, the new Voter ID bill would require voters to have a South Carolina-issued driver's license or picture ID, or a passport or military ID, in order to vote. The bill also instructs the State Election Commission to purchase cameras and other equipment so that new voter registration cards will include voter photos. The legislation calls for contacting voters without photo IDs. The state would also suspend the $5 fee for a state-issued identification card until every county election office has picture voter registration available.

Republicans aren't chasing the bogeyman with these new requirements, says Greg Foster, spokesman for House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston). "It's catching up with the technology to protect our elections," he says.

Presenting a photo ID is certainly something most of people are used to — whether at the grocery, getting on a plane, renting a Uhaul, or filling a prescription. But the bottom line is that some voters will walk into the polls unaware of the change, while others will simply be unable to make the special trip to get an ID. And they'll be refused a ballot for no other reason than they don't have a really bad picture from the DMV. Times will change, and in a few years every voter registration will come with a picture. Until then, some registered voters will not be able to vote.

"The burden will be greatest for citizens for whom it is most cost prohibitive or inconvenient to take off work, get transportation, stand in line, and apply for documentation," says Barbara Zia, president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. "This requirement would disenfranchise the very people who currently must work the hardest to vote."

Republicans may be catching up with modern technology, but for some this new technology carries allusions to the past. This proposal, much like the efforts of local lawyer Larry Kobrovsky to exempt Charleston from certain requirements in the Voting Rights Act designed to protect minority voters, this proposal is alarming to those who remember the barriers placed in front of African Americans in the 1960s.

The bill clearly instructs poll managers to verify that the photo matches the voter, and skeptics worry about the subjectivity inherent in such a requirement. The use of driver's licenses already provides hurdles for some voters. DMV policy doesn't require a new card to be issued every time a driver moves, so the address on the card doesn't change, even if the voter registration does. And, in the case of some students, their license may be from another state.

"That's something that we struggle to train our poll managers on," says State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

In 2008, students were turned away at polling places around the College of Charleston for using their student IDs. Student voting rights advocates like local Cynthia Rosengren lobbied for a clarification in the poll managers handbook addressing the legitimate use of the student ID as acceptable identification. That likely helped prevent similar problems in 2010. Under the new law, student IDs would not be valid at the polls.

In the end, these new hurdles for students may be unintentional. At a recent campus forum on the 2010 gubernatorial race, Rosengren asked both campaign managers about the importance of college voters. Disappointingly, she notes both men focused on the role students play as grassroots volunteers. "They want students to donate hours and hours of their time, but they don't seem to think of students in terms of an important voting bloc," she says.

The State Election Commission estimates the ID requirements will cost roughly $260,000 a year for supplies, with an additional up-front cost of $535,000 for equipment, voter education, and training. Whitmire says the election commission costs include distributing posters and brochures and sending out letters to the affected voters.

If that and the wealth of media coverage doesn't cover it, the legislation approved by the House provides an opportunity for a political party that knows who its voters are. Under the bill, the state election commission will provide a list to anyone that includes all the registered voters who don't have a state-issued ID or driver's license. With the time and resources, a party could compare that list to its faithful primary voters and contact those who need a picture.

The state Senate has started work on its own version of the bill that would allow early voting. The House version would actually eliminate in-person absentee voting, but it's likely that a compromise bill will include a few days of early voting for people who don't want to wait in line on Election Day. And voters who show up early at the polls, but without an ID, could have a chance to get one and make sure their vote to counts.

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