By Paul Bowers
Edited by Jennifer Standard
Posted April 22, 2010
While S.C. Republicans pushing for a voter identification bill talk about fraud and Democrats opposing the bill allege racism, the reality for poll worker Carrie Bufford is that most problems she's seen are just honest mistakes.
Bufford said she has worked at Richland County polls since 1994 and never seen a case of fraud.
"A lot of times, people go to the wrong precinct, and we try to send them to the right one," said Bufford, 62. Mostly, she said, it's just that "we're really busy."
House Bill 3418, introduced a year ago, would make registered voters present photo identification at the polls. People without a driver's license would need a state ID, and the Department of Motor Vehicles would have to provide the five-year card for free instead of charging the current $5. It could still charge for driver's licenses.
The State Budget Office estimates the bill would cost $530,000 to implement, but it hasn't yet factored in the cost of printing ID cards for the 178,000 registered S.C. voters the Election Commission says lack ID.
While Bufford hasn't seen fraud, Wesley Donehue, spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus, says he saw a man trying to vote at three locations.
"We're not waiting for our house to catch on fire before we buy a fire detector," Donehue said.
More important for Donehue is the bill's early voting period beginning 15 days before the election.
"I'll tell you what stops people from voting: if they get to the election line and they see people wrapped around the block," he said.
Things like the 1993 federal "Motor Voter" act, which lets people register to vote while renewing their driver's license, have led to a need for greater accountability, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, one of the voter ID bill's original sponsors.
"Usually with an easier way comes the need for more oversight," Simrill said.
Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the State Election Commission, said South Carolina has had no documented cases of voter impersonation. Nationally, a 2007 study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice said an American is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate another voter.
The state Senate has passed the voter ID bill and sent it back to the House with amendments. If it does not pass before the Legislature adjourns its two-year session in June, the measure would have to be reintroduced next year.
Some of the 178,000 registered to vote in South Carolina who don't have ID might be homeless, and Daniel Long, homeless outreach coordinator for City Partnership Inc. in Columbia, said the bill is another way to disenfranchise them.
But many of those without homes have photo IDs because they need them to apply for jobs or get help from places like Columbia's Oliver Gospel Mission. Kenneth Stewart, 63, who is homeless, got his in mid-February for the $5, plus $3 in bus fare to get to the DMV.
"They want you to do the right thing, but they want to charge you for everything," Stewart said.
Before the bill was revised to make the ID free, Democrats and other opponents called it a modern-day poll tax to keep minorities from voting.
"It's going to affect people of color more than white people," said Brett Bursey, director of the S.C. Progressive Network. "There's no evidence that this bill is going to do anything other than make it more difficult for people to vote."
The Election Commission, however, lists 114,419 white registered voters without a DMV-issued ID compared with 63,756 nonwhites.
But looked at another way, the state's poorest counties, with heavy minority populations, potentially get hit hardest. The average median household income is $27,000 in the five counties with large numbers of voters without photo IDs, compared with a statewide median of about $37,000.
If the bill passes, poll workers like Bufford won't necessarily have to turn away everyone without ID. The bill says a voters with a "reasonable impediment that prevents the elector from obtaining photograph identification" can cast a provisional ballot if they sign a sworn statement confirming their ID.
Whitmire said county election commissions would assess the validity of these impediments after voting is finished.