Fighting for right to keep voting: New law disenfranchises people without documentation

'I'm not going to sit here and allow my voting rights to be sabotaged,' said Louis Owens of West Ashley. 'We worked too hard to get them,' the former Marine added Monday at an NAACP-sponsored town hall meeting to discuss the legislation at the Alfred Williams Community Center in North Charleston.

West Ashley resident Everett Garlington is among the estimated 180,000 people who could be disenfranchised if South Carolina's photo ID law holds up.

His trouble: he misplaced his driver's license.

True, he could get a replacement, but it will cost him more than $160 -- money he said the Department of Motor Vehicles wants because years ago he was late turning in a license plate.

The other half of Garlington's troubles: Because his missing driver's license is still valid, the DMV won't issue an alternative photo ID to use at the polls.

"If they had an election today, I couldn't vote," said Garlington, 59.

Garlington was among more than 40 people who appeared at an NAACP town hall meeting Monday where opponents said they would do everything in their power to see that the state's new voter ID law never gets used.

Many said it is no more than an attempt to rekindle Jim Crow through a modern-day poll tax.

"In America, we should be trying to include people in the voting process; this excludes people," Nelson Rivers III, vice president of stockholder relations for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said during the gathering at the Alfred Williams Community Center in North Charleston.

South Carolina's voter ID law passed the GOP-controlled Statehouse this year on a largely partisan vote as an attempt to curb voter fraud. It requires anyone wishing to vote to first show a government-recognized photograph ID. While the bill was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley, it must still win approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before it can be enforced.

Representatives from several opposition groups said Monday their immediate goal is to petition U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to strike down the law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

"Instead of having hoods and Klan meetings, we've dressed it up as law," said Phil Noble, president of the S.C. New Democrats. "But it still has the same effect as a barrier to keeping black folks from voting."

The forum was one of four being held around the state by the NAACP. The group contends there are tens of thousands of people who don't drive, have used different names, never gotten a birth certificate or have no need for the types of identification the state is now requiring them to have. NAACP leaders hope to turn those stories into affidavits to submit to the Justice Department by late August.

Susan Dunn, legal director for the South Carolina ACLU, said Garlington's story illustrates another weakness of the measure: It forces someone to comply with one branch of government in order to exercise what otherwise is a constitutional right.

She also pointed out that if the photographic ID requirement stays in place, a poll worker could unilaterally place new hurdles on Election Day by raising objections if a voter's look has changed through a different hairstyle, age or by growing a beard or moustache.

How soon the Department of Justice will rule on the law's validity is unclear.

If it does pass Justice Department scrutiny, the earliest it likely can be used statewide is probably November when a number of municipal elections are scheduled, including in Charleston and North Charleston.

NAACP leaders said they aren't going to stop their fight to kill the law, no matter how long it takes. "There is nothing off the table for us to look at and to do," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP.

Other forums are scheduled for Rock Hill, Cheraw and in the Midlands.

Voter ID law

South Carolina's new voter identification law signed by Gov. Nikki Haley won't go into effect until the U.S. Department of Justice approves it. The department is taking comments through late August on public concerns about the new requirements. A decision is expected after that, but no date has been given for approval or denial.

Once the law goes into effect, the following are acceptable forms of photo ID to present at the polls:

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.