COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's Election Commission said Friday it would seek the state attorney general's opinion on whether it must immediately release a list of voters who lack state-issued driver's licenses or ID cards required by a new law.
Agency spokesman Christ Whitmire declined Thursday and Friday to release the names of nearly 217,000 active voters who lack that photo identification. He said it's unclear whether the list must be released while the U.S. Justice Department reviews parts of the law. He also said there are concerns about privacy and whether groups with "bad" information will contact voters before the Election Commission.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law in May. It requires people casting ballots to show poll workers a state-issued driver's license or ID card; a U.S. military ID or a U.S. passport. The Justice Department is reviewing the law, and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging it.
Advocates say the change is needed to prevent election fraud. Haley, for instance, said photo IDs are required in everyday transactions, including those at the drug store. Opponents say there have been no proven cases of that type of voter fraud involving identification, and that minority, poor and elderly voters will be affected the most by the law.
The law required the state Election Commission to work with the Department of Motor Vehicles to create the list. The commission matched its list of more than 2.7 million registered voters with the DMV records of 4 million license or ID holders in September.
The law says the "list must be made available to any registered voter upon request." It also allows the Election Commission to charge a fee for the list to cover the cost of creating it.
Whitmire said the key issue is whether the law takes effect before the Justice Department decides whether to challenge the photo ID provision.
Jay Bender, a Columbia lawyer and state open records law expert, said nothing in the state's Freedom of Information Act allows the agency to wait for the Justice Department to approve the law before releasing records. "Well that's just absurd," Bender said. "It's a South Carolina record, it's a public record and the law requires it to be released upon a written request."
The Justice Department has spent months reviewing the law. Justice has to approve election law changes in South Carolina under the Voting Rights Act because of the state's past abuses. Last week, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson submitted responses to the Justice Department questions on the new law. In the submission, the Election Commission described how the state will tell voters about the changes.
Whitmire said the commission is concerned about who will be bringing that information to voters.
"If we release it to you, we've got to release it to everybody," Whitmire told a reporter. Outside groups may make contact with voters first, he said, and that means voters "may be getting bad information."
He said the commission needs to get its information into voters' hands first.
"We want to be very clear about what they have to do in order to vote under these new rules and we would like to be able to tell them first what these new rules are," Whitmire said.
But questions already have been raised about the information the Election Commission is releasing.
For instance, drafts of education materials sent to the Justice Department tell voters they must have photo identification in order to vote but the drafts don't mention that voters are still allowed to cast mail-in absentee ballots without photo identification. The ACLU said that leaves voters with an incorrect impression of voting requirements.
Meanwhile, there are privacy issues. The records now contain information that can't legally be released. Whitmire said that includes Social Security numbers and the places where voters first registered. Those places can include the Department of Mental Health or Department of Social Services. However, Whitmire said that information can be removed easily.
Whitmire also said voters may be surprised that their names are released publicly. They could raise their own privacy concerns.
The agency hasn't decided how much to charge for the voter ID list. It likely will be a small, nominal charge, Whitmire said, nowhere near the $1,975 now charged for the full list of South Carolina voters. It "will not be a barrier for people to get it," he said.
"Our only interest in all of this is making sure all voters know about the changes and what they need to do in order to be able to vote," Whitmire said.