The dust has barely settled in South Carolina since the Department of Justice refused to approve the state’s voter ID law, a discriminatory measure which would disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, many of them African-American, elderly and young people. And yet, undeterred and brazenly determined, the state legislature is already taking another bite at the voter suppression apple.
This time, the legislature is rushing through a law that will severely restrict community-based voter registration drives. House Bill 4549, modeled after a Florida law that forced the League of Women Voters and other civic organizations to abandon voter registration efforts in the state, would effectively shut down community-based voter registration drives in South Carolina, requiring any individual or organization to register with the state before assisting other South Carolinians in registering to vote, and subjecting those individuals or organizations to up to $1,000 in fines, even for honest mistakes like sending the forms to the wrong county or not putting enough postage on the envelopes.
The bill would discourage churches, teachers, colleges, and community centers from helping people to register to vote; it would discourage people like James Felder who, in 1963, while serving his country in the military, helped carry President John F. Kennedy’s body to Arlington National Cemetery, and who in 1970, became one of three black men elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives for the first time since reconstruction. Felder has since made his life’s work registering others to vote and with this new voter suppression bill in effect, he would likely have to give up that work. The bill would also discourage teachers like Dawn Quarles who, since 2008, has helped her students register to vote as part of the government and politics classes she teaches in high school. As we’ve already seen in Florida, restrictions to voter registration will result in discouraging almost all voter registration drives throughout the state.
In 2008, South Carolina was an abysmal 42nd in the nation in voter turnout. Instead of wasting time and resources erecting additional barriers to voting, the state legislature should be encouraging greater participation in elections. Broad political participation strengthens our democracy and ensures the preservation of all our other rights and freedoms. Voter registration groups play an important role in the process, making voter registration more accessible, especially for minority, student and low-income voters. The South Carolina legislature should abandon HB 4549 and focus instead on helping protect the right of all South Carolinians to vote.
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