The federal trial over South Carolina's voter ID law this week offered a lesson in constituent relations and looking around corners when pushing controversial laws.
Firing off an "amen" to a racist remark from a constituent might have been expedient in the short term, but it wasn't the smart thing to do -- in writing. That's especially true when the subject is a law many view as discriminatory in a state subject to close watch under the federal Voting Rights Act because of past discrimination.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons of Myrtle Beach had to explain in court his response to a 2009 e-mail during that year's legislative fight over a voter ID bill. According to an Associated Press report, the e-mail stated: "I don't buy that garbage that if a poor black person or an elderly one, that these people won't be able to get one. ... They make it sound like these people are too stupid to get one."
If the legislature offered a hundred-dollar bill for getting a voter ID card, it continued, "you would see how fast they got voter ID cards with their picture. It would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon."
Clemmons said he regretted his "amen," and said the e-mail message didn't reflect his mindset, only that of the sender. He didn't want to engage the consitutent in a discussion over the remark.
Clemmons would have served his cause better had he responded more thoughtfully. His mindset should have been to challenge the racist remark, which would have reinforced his contention that a voter ID law is not aimed at suppressing minority and poor voters, but at protecting the "integrity" of a vote.
And as for protecting the integrity of the vote, lawmakers of both stripes continue to ignore a far bigger source of potential fraud -- absentee voting, which requires no photo ID to get a ballot. In 2009 and 2010, the state House of Representatives tried to eliminate the ability to cast an absentee ballot in person -- which makes fraud harder to commit -- and allow only mail-in absentee ballots. That effort failed, as did the effort to allow no-excuses-needed early voting.
State Republican Party leaders noted in 2010 that Democrats had made good use of in-person early absentee voting in 2008. Republicans made their own push for absentee voting in 2010.
Critics of voter ID laws and the fraud prevention rationale make a very good point: Same-day impersonation is an inefficient way to sway election results. Absentee ballots cast away from the polling place and collected or mailed in over the course of weeks would be the better way to get it done.
Supporters of voter ID laws would have a stronger argument to make about protecting the integrity of elections if they were also pushing other ways to fight voting fraud.