COLUMBIA -- What box should Gov. Nikki Haley check when it comes to her race?

The South Carolina Democratic Party tried Thursday to make Haley out as a liar for checking "white" as her race on her 2001 Lexington County voter registration application.

But the application had no specific option for "Indian." Her options were "white, black/African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American or other."

The governor stayed silent on the matter, although her allies accused the Democrats of the lowest-grade politics: race-baiting. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, has never emphasized herself as South Carolina's first female and minority governor and the country's second Indian-American governor, but it has earned enormous national notoriety.

Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on African-American studies, said deciding what box to fit a person in is a very Southern concept. To him, race is a matter of self-identification, or allowing a person to check the boxes that may apply.

"I always expect political parties to be political," Shaw said. "I think what is just as interesting is that it draws all of us into the fight: 'This is what we really understand this person to be.' Are you who I say you are or who society says you are?"

Dick Harpootlian, the Democratic Party chairman, said whether Haley listed her race as white or not doesn't matter to him. The point is, he said, that the governor has a pattern of twisting the truth.

"Haley has been appearing on television interviews where she calls herself a minority -- when it suits her," Harpootlian said. "When she registers to vote, she says she is white. She has developed a pattern of saying whatever is beneficial to her at the moment."

Harpootlian said more evidence of that is Haley's decision to list her previous employer as the Lexington Medical Center Foundation on her ethics disclosure forms when she was actually paid by the hospital. The discrepancy seems inconsequential, Harpootlian said, but the difference between the two calls into question other ethics laws on the books.

Haley worked as a fundraiser for the foundation, but she was paid by the hospital.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the State Election Commission, said he knows of no state election law or a definition by the agency for the term "white."

The commission doesn't attempt to verify a person's race, but that data is used by U.S. Department of Justice to enforce fair voting practices. Collecting the information is a requirement of state law, Whitmire said. If a person checks "other," he or she is asked to specify.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines "Caucasian" as the "characteristic of a race of humankind native to Europe, North Africa, and southwest Asia and classified according to physical features -- used especially in referring to persons of European descent having usually light skin pigmentation."

Shaw, the USC professor, said a person from southern Asia, where India is located, may more often check the box Asian than white. The issue has been the subject of many studies.

"The governor has the right to project herself however she chooses," Shaw said, noting that her decision may have been politically motivated.

Declaring oneself as white could have political advantages, Shaw said. For example, studies show people are pre-disposed to thinking about President Barack Obama more favorably when he is identified as being multi-racial or bi-racial than black. "Race does matter," he said. "There are advantages and disadvantages."

Haley's voter registration card, first obtained by the Democratic Party, is a public record. The 2001 card was the only one on file in the Lexington County voter registration office, according to the party. The voter registration office in her home county of Bamberg did not have an application on file for her.

It is not clear if Haley had declared her race differently on any earlier voter registration applications.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her on Twitter at @yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog.