Beaufort County League of Women Voters fights voter-registration bill

tbarton@islandpacket.comFebruary 21, 2012 

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Local League of Women Voters members say a bill in the S.C. House of Representatives would hamper voter registration drives in the state by imposing new rules the league says are unreasonable.

The bill would require get-out-the-vote groups like the league to register with the State Election Commission and pay penalties if they don't deliver applications they collect quickly enough.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton area says that puts an undue burden on community volunteers trying to perform a civic service. Some of its members went to Columbia on Tuesday to protest.

"We'd lose a valuable civic service to the state," said Sally McGarry, the organization's state-action chairwoman.

She called the bill in the House the latest in an "assault on voter rights" in the state, starting with a voter-ID bill passed last May.

The local league registered about 100 people to vote last year. Numbers are typically higher during a presidential election year, said league member Sue Feutz.

The House bill would require anyone registering voters in South Carolina to account for all registration forms and deliver them within 48 hours to election offices or be fined $50 per late application. The bill, however, is unclear on that point. It also mentions a five-day deadline for delivering registration forms.

Those who turn in applications after registration deadlines for state or federal elections would be fined $100 per late form.

Organizations wouldn't be able to simply keep late applications to avoid a fine -- doing so would result in a $500 penalty for each application not submitted. If the offense is willful, the fine increases.

Total fines would be capped at $1,000, although violators also could face civil penalties from the S.C. Attorney General's Office.

The rules would not apply to state or local-government agencies and departments. For example, the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles has 10 days to submit information under current law, and that deadline would not change. Those registering a spouse, child or parent also would be exempt.

"We already turn in voter-registration applications as quickly as we can," McGarry said. "Giving us just two days to turn in applications or face strict penalties is unreasonable."

The House has debated the bill, but hasn't voted.Attempts Tuesday to reach bill sponsors Reps. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, and Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, were unsuccessful. Attempts to reach Reps. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, and Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, also were unsuccessful.

Clemmons, in an email to an opponent of the bill, said the legislation safeguards "valuable information" provided by those registering to vote, including Social Security numbers.

"To require accountability over those to whom so much is entrusted is the right thing to do, in my opinion," Clemmons wrote.

Critics argue the bill discriminates against the poor and elderly, who cannot always easily travel to places where they can register. They also argue it unfairly targets minorities, citing statistics indicating blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately more likely than whites to register through new-voter drives. The statistics are part of a 2011 comprehensive report on new voting laws by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's Law School.

A similar law passed in Florida in May caused that state's League of Women Voters and Rock-the-Vote to suspend voter-registration drives. They and others filed suit in December asking a federal court reject the law, arguing it violates federal voting and constitutionally protected free speech and association rights.

A voter-ID bill passed by the S.C. legislature last May has been blocked by the U.S. Justice Department, which says the new provisions could disenfranchise nearly 82,000 registered minority voters identified as not having any state-issued identification.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson earlier this month challenged the Justice Department's action.

Scott Marshall, executive director of the Beaufort County elections board, said people should not rely on third parties to register to vote.

"Any time you leave it up to anyone else to turn in your voter registration form there is a risk," Marshall said.

More than 3,660 had signed an online petition opposing the bill as of Tuesday afternoon.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related Content

  1. League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area
  2. Online petition -- SC Government: Stop the Assault on Voting Rights
  3. H. 4549
  4. Florida's House Bill 1355
  5. League of Women Voters of Florida v. Browning
  6. S.C. files legal challenge to DOJ's denial of Voter I.D. law
  7. NAACP vows to fight SC voter ID law: July 18, 2011
  8. SC voter ID law actually enables new way for fraud: May 20, 2011

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