WASHINGTON — A South Carolina lawmaker and the author of a voter ID law considered discriminatory by the Justice Department testified in federal court Tuesday that, while crafting the bill, he had responded favorably to a friend’s racist email in support of the measure.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons acknowledged his reaction in the second day of arguments before a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over whether the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department blocked the 2011 voter ID law, which would force South Carolina residents to show one of five forms of photo identification in order to vote: a driver’s license, a DMV-issued photo ID, a passport, military ID or a voter registration card with photo issued by the local elections office. The Voting Rights Act requires federal review of all election laws passed in states with a history of discriminating against black voters.
The Justice Department has asserted that South Carolina’s law would disproportionately burden African-Americans, who it says are less likely than whites to have or be able to get the types of ID the law requires. In response, South Carolina is suing Attorney General Eric Holder. Lawyers for groups including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union have joined the trial to rebut South Carolina’s claims that its law is colorblind.
Garrard Beeney, who represented the civil rights groups, presented emails sent to and from Clemmons’ personal account between 2009 and 2011, when he was working on the law. One, from a man named Ed Koziol, used racially charged rhetoric to denounce the idea that poor, black voters might lack transportation or other resources necessary to obtain photo ID. If the Legislature offered a reward for identification cards, “it would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon,” Koziol wrote.
Beeney asked Clemmons how he had replied to this email. Clemmons hesitated a moment before answering, “It was a poorly considered response when I said, ‘Amen, Ed, thank you for your support.’”
Beeney also contended that Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach Republican, wrote the law to suppress Democratic votes. Blacks in South Carolina typically vote Democratic. Beeney asked Clemmons whether he remembered distributing packets of peanuts with cards that read “Stop Obama’s nutty agenda and support voter ID.”
Clemmons said he did not, though Beeney said he had testified in June that he did.
South Carolina’s lawyers sought to prove that the ID law represented a compromise between Democrats and Republicans.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who was the top-ranked member of the state Senate until earlier this year, testified that the law emerged after a series of conference committees and negotiations spanning multiple legislative sessions. When he had the opportunity to appoint senators to the conference committees that worked on the bill, he picked both Democrats and Republicans, he said.
“If you want something, to get it you need to find out what other people want and then ride together in the same car,” said McConnell, a Charleston Republican.
But under questioning from Beeney, McConnell said he believed the law would have been more in compliance with the Voting Rights Act if it had included provisions to make voting easier, such as an early voting period. The Senate passed a voter ID bill that included such provisions, but Clemmons and other members of the House opposed it and would not compromise, McConnell said.
McConnell also testified that he agreed to remove the early voting provision from the bill because Clemmons told him the House would pass a separate early voting bill. But the House never sent the Senate an early voting bill, and when the Senate sent one to the House, it died in committee.
Testimony from Marci Andino, South Carolina’s elections director, suggested that even if South Carolina’s law goes into effect by the Nov. 6 general election, it may have a limited impact.
Voters may cast a ballot without a photo ID if they sign an affidavit attesting that they had a reasonable impediment to obtaining the ID. “Reasonable” is at the voter’s discretion, Andino said. If 100,000 people come to the polls in November with affidavits and say they did not have time to obtain a photo ID, their votes will be counted.
“Err on the side of the voter,” Andino said. “If there’s any doubt, then the voter should be permitted to vote.”