COLUMBIA — On the surface, the proposed law seems simple enough: Bring a picture ID with you when you vote.
The bill, however, is not what it appears, many opponents said Thursday. Behind it is a hidden motive from those in power to pay back Democrats, especially those who are poor or elderly, for the record turnout on Election Day.
Supporters in this state argue that couldn't be more wrong. The point of the bill is to protect the integrity of the vote.
"To say that requiring a picture ID to vote creates an undue burden is absurd," House Speaker Bobby Harrell said in a recent statement. "A picture ID is required to do just about anything in our society, except to vote."
Harrell, a Charleston Republican, is the lead sponsor of the bill tagged as a priority this year by the House GOP caucus. Democrats in the House argue that their Republican colleagues railroaded them last week when the House passed the bill and sent it to the Senate.
The bill is modeled after a new law in Indiana, which survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge. By the time the court handed down its ruling, it was too late to institute the law before last year's election.
Rep. David Mack, a North Charleston Democrat, was one of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus who walked out before the 65-14 vote to give the bill key approval in the House.
"People have died for the right to vote, so when anybody monkeys around with the right to vote they've touched a very sensitive nerve," Mack said. "People can expect an all-out battle."
The bill is viewed by some as a burden because it makes it harder, not easier, on voters, especially those who don't have photo IDs. The poor and the elderly are less likely to have IDs than other voters.
The legislation not only is of concern for the Legislative Black Caucus. Mary Horres of Mount Pleasant said everyone in the state should be worried about the implications. It would create a burden for college students and the elderly, among others, she said.
Horres, who is co-chairwoman of voter services for the League of Women Voters in the Charleston area, said the bill also is foolish and costly.
Because the bill requires voters to show a driver's license, passport, military ID or state ID card, and repeals the current $5 fee for state-issued photo IDs, it would reduce state coffers by more than an estimated $700,000 a year, although Republicans argue that number is inflated.
Of the state's 2.5 million registered voters, 2.2 million already have a state-issued photo ID. The State Election Commission knows of no case of voter fraud in recent history, as defined as a person who claims to be someone he or she is not while attempting to cast a ballot.
However, Chris Whitmire, public information officer for the Election Commission, said the state does have recent cases of election fraud, such as a Florence man who was arrested in 2004 for using other people's personal information, including that of the mayor of Florence, on more than 1,000 voter registration forms. Whitmire noted that it is possible that instances of impersonation fraud exist but go unreported.
In addition to the voter ID bill, the House Republican Caucus has made it a priority to take on other election-related matters, including establishing an early voting period.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican, said he has charged a Senate subcommittee with the task of evaluating the voter ID bill, along with other measures that would improve voter access and protect the integrity of South Carolina elections.
"I am concerned if anyone votes illegally and essentially steals part of my vote, just as I want to make sure that everyone who wants to vote has a reasonable opportunity to vote," he said.
The legislation does not apply to absentee ballots. If a voter shows up at a polling place without a picture ID, he or she could cast a provisional ballot and have 10 days to produce the ID. The new law, if passed, would take effect January 2010.
The Voting Rights Act requires that the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division give clearance to any changes in voting in South Carolina.