Primary Election (copy)

Voters exit the polling place at Bethany United Methodist Church in Summerville during the June primary. File/Staff

It's one of the perplexing questions recent arrivals to South Carolina bring up:

Why does the state mandate you identify by race when you register to vote?

Arkansas doesn't do it. Virginia doesn't either. Nor do Mississippi or a bunch of other states. But South Carolina requires voters to provide their ethnicity before they can cast a ballot.

It's been a part of state law for more than a half-century, the State Election Commission said.

The question was among a list lawmakers wanted back then that can only be seen as intrusive by today's standards.

In addition to your ethnicity, they wanted to know if you were a minister or married to a clergyman or in charge of an organized church. They wanted to know if you were a teacher or a spouse of one.

Lengthy residency requirement periods were in place, too, some lasting years and months.

It was a time when racial disenfranchisement was a built-in part of the system and the status quo was trying to undermine the civil rights movement.

Additionally, you had to swear you could both read and write a section of the state's constitution (that's called a literacy test) and that you owned and paid taxes on property assessed at $300 or more.

There was even this box each voter had to check on the sign-up form: "I am not an idiot, or insane, a pauper supported at public expense or confined in any public prison." 

Legal challenges and the passage of time got rid of most of these burdens. But the race identification question stuck around.

One reason many states opted to keep the racial identifier in place was to help in administering the Federal Voting Rights Act. The 1965 legislation, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, worked to dismantle state and local legal requirements that prevented blacks from voting under the guarantee of the 15th Amendment. 

While other legal hurdles have disappeared, the race-oriented data collection question stayed in South Carolina.

Today, the individual options of racial identity in South Carolina include: "Black/AA, White, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Multiple, Other or Unknown."

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Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the state's data collection by race is much sought after by the media, academics or others having political interests in tracking participation by race.

"I can tell you a lot of our customers find it to be useful information," Whitmire said.

There are multiple ways to glean information from the state data: number of black voters in a district or precinct; the number of white voters statewide; people who always vote in primaries; black women who only vote in presidential election years, etc.

Mailing lists and voter appeals can be crafted to these folks.

In the Statehouse, changing or altering voting-related laws are rarely considered a priority. The last major change was the picture ID requirement implemented in 2013 as part of a wave of measures seen in conservative states.

Right now there doesn't seem much interest in dropping the racial identity check box. State Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the issue has never surfaced in front of his group.

So the offshoot of this is: Vote on Tuesday. But realize whether you are black, white, other or unknown, in South Carolina your ballot identity is not as secretive as you may think.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.