Voting rights advocates say confusion around South Carolina’s voter ID law could keep would-be voters from the polls in the state’s pivotal Democratic primary later this month. And they claim Republican state officials, including Gov. Nikki Haley, are in part to blame. It’s impossible to say how significant the law’s impact might be when Democrats cast their ballots on February 27. But the concerns highlight how even relatively lax laws around photo IDs and voting can nonetheless end up suppressing the vote if they’re poorly understood by voters and poll workers. South Carolina could play a key role in the Democratic contest, in which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in a heated battle. In 2008, black voters, who could be disproportionately affected by the ID law, made up over half of all voters in the state’s Democratic primary. This year, polls suggest blacks in the state favor Clinton, but Sanders has been working to make inroads.
According to the state’s numbers, 178,000 South Carolinians, disproportionately non-whites, don’t have any of the forms of photo ID that the law calls for. Crucially, people are in fact allowed to vote even without a photo ID, as long as they sign an affidavit stating why they don’t have one. But those working to mobilize voters say which documents are and aren’t required is not well understood. “I think people are confused,” said Jan Leonard, an official with the Charleston County Democratic Party. “People ask me all the time: What about this, what about that?”
Leonard and others say the state has helped stoke that confusion through its public education campaign about the law. Handouts and polling place posters created by the state election commission declare: “Photo ID Requirements Now In Effect: Voters will be asked to show one of these photo IDs before voting in person.” Only in much smaller text below that—and even there, not until the third paragraph—do voters learn that they can vote without ID. “The official language is basically: Yeah, you need an ID,” said Leonard. She said that message could deter some voters, especially students or those voting for the first time.
Public comments by Haley, who signed the law, have reinforced the false idea that ID is needed to vote. “Requiring people to show a photo ID before they vote is a reasonable measure,” Haley, who’s being eyed as a possible Republican vice presidential pick, said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last September, omitting that her state’s law does not require it. “Let’s figure out ways to make it easy and cost-free for every eligible voter to obtain a photo ID. That way, everyone who wants to vote can vote.”