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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

S.C. Shows Why the Voting Rights Act is Still Needed

Alec Macgillis has a post up at The New Republic “Until this generation of people dies out,” subtitled “Think the Voting Rights Act is outdated? Come to South Carolina,” which the Supreme Court conservatives ought to read. Macgillis shares some observations by Dr. Brenda Williams, a family-practice internist in Sumter, South Carolina, who is helping disadvantaged people get their i.d. cards and whatever else is necessary for them to vote. Williams relates incidents of discrimination, including these examples:

…Amanda Wolfe, 28, not only did not have a birth certificate but did not know who her birth parents were. Naomi Gordon, 57, had a birth certificate but it misspelled her first name as “Lmnoie,” the apparent result of having been birthed by a midwife with sloppy or poor writing skills. Her brother Raymond Rutherford, who works at Wal-Mart, had his name misspelled as Rayman; his only photo ID was one he’d bought from the local liquor store in 1976 for $10. Junior Glover, 78, didn’t have a birth certificate; his name was recorded in a family Bible that was destroyed in a fire in 1989. Clyde Daniels had a birth certificate but no proof of his current address, as all his household records were in his wife’s name. He told Williams, “There’s nothing wrong with my mind, Dr. Williams, my wife is just a better businessperson.”

Multiply these accounts by tens of thousands, and you will get some idea of why Section 5 preclearance provision is still very much needed. As Macgillis explains:

Williams says that she helped well over 100 people get photo IDs (South Carolina officials estimate there are about 180,000 eligible voters in the state who lack a valid driver’s license). Rutherford, Gordon, Glover and one other person are still waiting for their corrected birth certificates. But with Williams’s help they have been able to get a qualifying voter registration card under language in the South Carolina law that exempts people facing a “reasonable impediment.” A federal court in Washington approved the South Carolina law in October only after state officials pledged to give an “extremely broad interpretation” to that exception.
That guarantee would not have come about, Williams notes, but for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is why it would be a “terrific mistake” for the Supreme Court to do away with preclearance. She acknowledges that South Carolina and other southern states are hardly alone in pressing stringent voter ID laws–Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other northern states have done so as well. But her experience has shown, she says, that the Deep South remains in a league of its own in seeking to disenfranchise racial minorities. “South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union, for goodness’ sake, and now it’s talking about seceding again,” she said. “Without question, there is still a staunch racist atmosphere in the South. It gives me a bad feeling in my gut to say that but it’s true. We have a Confederate flag flying on the State House grounds, for God’s sake!”

It’s hard to see how the Supreme Court conservatives can credibly deny the unending struggle people of color face at the polls in the south. For the high court conservatives to invalidate this historic reform, which has done so much to democratize the states in question, would bring great shame on the legacy of the Roberts court.

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