COLUMBIA — A state lawmaker’s “amen” response to a racist email has tossed gasoline onto the political fire surrounding South Carolina’s voter identification law.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, acknowledged the positive reaction Tuesday during testimony before a three-judge federal panel that will rule on whether the measure violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But Clemmons, one of the lead architects of the measure signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley last year, and a pair of Democratic lawmakers said he is no racist.
Others said the response laid bare the ugly, true intent of the Republican-backed voter ID bill — to keep overwhelmingly Democratic-voting African-Americans from the polls.
Clemmons rejected that notion Wednesday, saying there was no racial motive behind the bill, and that he is not racist.
“I can’t describe to you in appropriate terms how it makes me feel to be given title to a practice I’ve abhorred all my life,” Clemmons said Wednesday.
The real estate attorney, first elected to the S.C. House in 2002, said he would have responded differently in hindsight.
“There’s no question I would,” Clemmons said. “I would have certainly taken more time to consider my response. I take full responsibility for that. I do not accept the title of racist. I abhor racism. There’s no place for it in our society.”
A man named Ed Koziol, who Clemmons said he doesn’t know personally, sent an email to Clemmons in support of the state’s voter ID law.
Koziol said in the message that he met Clemmons at a Republican event.
“I don’t buy that garbage that if a poor black person or an elderly one, that these people won’t be able to get one,” Koziol wrote, referring to identification the voter ID law would require.
“You listen to that big racist (Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim) Clyburn and (S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Dick) Harpootlian talk and they make it sound like these people are too stupid to get one. All you’d have to do is announce that South Carolina legislation was giving a hundred dollar bill away if you came down with a voter ID card, and you would see how fast they got voter ID cards with their picture. It would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon.”
Clemmons responded: “Amen, Ed. Thank you for your support of voter ID.”
Clemmons said Wednesday he knew Koziol’s comments were wrong.
“Those remarks were offensive to me and they were irresponsible,” he said. “I remember now receiving that email and it took me aback because it was so off the wall with voter ID.”
So why respond by saying “amen”?
“My thought was at the time that there is no point in my trying to change Mr. Koziol’s opinions and beliefs, and I needed to end the conversation and I thanked him for his support of voter ID,” Clemmons said.
Critics fire away
Harpootlian said the email and Clemmons’ response were “disgusting.”
“It’s all the stereotypical, horrible, racist clichés in one email,” Harpootlian said. “I think his response basically approves the response. Any public official should respond that this is unacceptable. He’s got a duty to try to persuade people or correct them.”
S.C. Senate Democratic Caucus political director Phil Bailey said Republicans’ “dirty little secret got aired out in federal court.”
And South Carolina’s top NAACP leader, Lonnie Randolph, said the exchange recalled South Carolina’s checkered racial history, and illustrated that the state still has far to go “in making things better for all people.”
Nonetheless, two Democrats who oppose the state’s voter ID law said racism is not in Clemmons’ nature.
Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro, no stranger to a floor fight with Clemmons, called the email unfortunate, but said Clemmons is “a genuinely nice guy.”
State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who worked under Martin Luther King Jr., said Clemmons has aided his efforts to appoint African-American judges, and he isn’t a bigot.
“Clemmons is not that type of person. He is a good guy,” Ford said.
The voter ID law
The U.S. Justice Department blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law in December over a concern that the law would discriminate against minorities.
The law would require voters to show a South Carolina driver’s license, state-issued ID, passport or military ID to vote. In the future, the State Election Commission was directed to provide voter registration cards with photos.
South Carolina sued the Justice Department after it blocked the law.
The three-judge panel is expected to rule on the measure this fall after testimony wraps up this week.
But the case is expected to ultimately head to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Haley cited the Justice Department’s rejection of the law in her Tuesday night Republican National Convention speech, describing it as part of a campaign of federal intervention that has hampered her ability to lead.
Her spokesman Wednesday said the email doesn’t change the administration’s support for voter ID.
“This single email exchange, while highly regrettable and ignorant in its language, does not change the fact that this legislation was passed with the honorable intention of preventing voter fraud, and with the broadly supported common sense idea that if you have to show photo ID to buy Sudafed or board an airplane, you ought to have to show photo ID to help ensure the integrity of our democracy,” Rob Godfrey said in a statement.
Political analysts said the exchange won’t alter the feelings of supporters or opponents about the voter ID law.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College and longtime observer of S.C. politics, said the revelation of the email could antagonize Democrats to turn out in greater numbers in November.
Scott Huffmon, a pollster and professor at Winthrop University, said the message won’t change the fault lines of the discussion over voter ID.
But “It may move the meter for how the court decides to view this case,” he said.