When the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, South Carolina was among the states required to get any voting changes approved by the Department of Justice, a process known as “preclearance.”
South Carolina was included based on a formula outlined in the act’s Section 5.
This formula considered whether a state or one of its political subdivisions maintained on Nov. 1, 1964, a “test or device,” restricting the opportunity to register and vote.
It also looked at whether fewer than 50 percent of its voting age population had registered to vote as of Nov. 1, 1964, and whether fewer than 50 percent of that population cast a ballot in the 1964 presidential race.
That formula made these states subject to the preclearance requirement: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. It also included certain counties in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and North Carolina. And it provided a procedure to terminate the coverage once certain criteria had been met.
Many South Carolina leaders objected to the Voting Rights Act because they felt it intruded on state’s rights.
In 1960, the attorney general probed voting in South Carolina in regard to civil rights. An editorial in The News and Courier said this about the federal government: “Interference in local government by Washington officials without knowledge or qualification is a form of tyranny.” The attorney general had sent agents into Hampton and Clarendon counties to question voting records because so few blacks were registered to vote.
Some used the phrase “Yankee go home,” to push back at what they saw as interference from the federal government.
After the act passed, South Carolina quickly moved to challenge the constitutionality of Section 5, without success.
The News and Courier published an article in October 1965, about federal registrars being sent to two South Carolina counties, The article quoted U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond as saying, “The registration procedures used by Dorchester, Clarendon and other South Carolina counties have already been liberalized to meet demands which in many cases were unreasonable and unwarranted.”
Literacy tests were common practice in the state, but the passage of the act halted those tests in South Carolina and other Southern states.
Shortly after the Voting Rights Act passed, The News and Courier wrote about the political effects on elections of white elected officials and the political parties. It began: “When Congress passed the 1965 voting rights bill it opened the door for Negro illiterates to vote in South Carolina — and thereby tossed this state’s political yardsticks out the same door.”
Since its passage, the Department of Justice has objected to election practices under Section 5 by South Carolina and its voting districts 122 times between 1971 and 2011, according to the Justice figures. Those practices included redistricting, annexations, and most recently the state’s Voter ID law, which was denied by the attorney general under Section 5.
In one of the biggest challenges, the U.S. Justice Department and others sued Charleston County Council and won, forcing it to change from electing all nine members at-large to electing them from nine single-member districts. The change increased the number of black council members.
Another high-profile case involved South Carolina’s Voter ID law, which passed in 2011 and requires voters to show photo identification at the polls. The Justice Department filed suit to block the law, while S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson argued that South Carolina’s law was similar to Georgia’s, which the Justice Department had cleared.
An amended version of the law was cleared in December 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which found there was no discriminatory intent behind the law and that it wouldn’t hurt blacks’ voting rights.
Voters who do not have one of five forms of acceptable ID — S.C. driver’s license, S.C. DMV photo ID card, a passport, federal military photo ID or a new free photo voter-registration card — still may cast a ballot by signing an affidavit briefly explaining why they don’t have one of those IDs.
Those voters still must have a traditional non-photo voter-registration card in order to vote. The reasonable impediment procedures were expanded during the course of the federal hearing, and the new law took effect Jan. 1.
The Justice Department sent monitors to Charleston County during the recent 1st Congressional district primaries and special election, but local election officials received no feedback of any problems.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.