COLUMBIA -- Advocates for the poor and minorities said Wednesday that a proposal to put new requirements on groups that register voters represents a bid to suppress voting among those most likely to vote for Democrats.
But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Alan Clemmons, contends it's about holding third-party groups accountable for properly handling a person's right to vote, and applies to all groups spanning the political spectrum.
The House measure requires any group that conducts voter registration drives to register with the state Elections Commission and turn in voters' forms within five days of signing them up. Fines for not turning them in start at $50. Intentional violations would bring a maximum fine of $1,000. All employees and volunteers participating in voter drives must sign a statement swearing they will uphold state election laws.
Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, said the measure's about preventing fraud, though he acknowledges no glaring example prompted its drafting.
"This is an across-the-board fair bill aimed at providing accountability and transparency for those entrusted with one of our most sacred rights," he said.
Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the vast majority of people conducting voter registration drives perform a great service, but the agency does occasionally find that forms aren't turned over. He said it's "not uncommon" to get complaints from residents who signed up during a drive, and thought they could vote, but were turned away at the polls. The law is estimated to cost his agency $20,000 for computer upgrades.
Floor debate, expected Wednesday, was postponed for two weeks.
The idea was borrowed from Florida, which passed an election law last year that placed new requirements on voter registration efforts, among other things. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have sued in federal court. The League of Women Voters says it's stopped registering voters in Florida.
Opponents of South Carolina's proposal contend the costly and burdensome measure will similarly hamper community-based voter registration drives. They say such drives disproportionately help the elderly, disabled and low-income voters sign up for their right to vote.
"It is a fear-based piece of legislation intended to block access to the polls of minority communities," said Christine Johnson, executive director of South Carolina Equality, who noted the group registers voters at gay pride events.
She was among about 40 people who gathered at the Statehouse to protest the legislation, representing groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the ACLU, AARP, and League of Women Voters.
In November 2010, black voters were four times more likely to register through voter registration drives than white voters, according to the ACLU. In 2008, South Carolina ranked 42nd nationwide in voter turnout.
"Instead of trying to encourage greater participation in our democracy, state legislators are wasting time creating unnecessary barriers," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.
Opponents view the third-party voter registration bill as yet another example of the GOP-controlled Legislature trying to suppress voter turnout. Last year, lawmakers approved a new law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls.
"Now today, the attack is on those individuals, churches, community organizations who would attempt to help people register so they might exercise their right to vote," Wendy Brawley, state president of AARP. "Who next?"
The measure could put South Carolina back in court, since it too would face preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department.
The federal agency in December blocked the state from implementing the voter ID law. State Attorney General Alan Wilson responded this week with a lawsuit, arguing the law already enacted in more than a dozen states does not disenfranchise any voters. He noted Indiana's voter ID law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans contend it's about preventing voter fraud, and that showing photo ID is needed for everything from boarding a plane to buying cold medicine.
Other states that recently passed the law don't fall under the review of the Justice Department. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, any change to South Carolina election laws faces review, due to its history of voter suppression.
The groups also oppose a Senate bill requiring voters to prove their citizenship when they register to vote, through documents including a driver's license, birth certificate, United States passport or tribal identification.
James Felder of the S.C. Voter Education Project said the legislation reminds him of a 1956 law prohibiting government employees from joining the NAACP, or if already a member, requiring they renounce their membership.
"I have seen this movie before," he said. "That was because the NAACP was doing voter registration all over the South. There is something about being in the Statehouse. They do some dumb things. They don't know the history."