Photo illustration by Scott Suchy

Consent of the Governed?

S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson does not mince words when asked what one voting reform proposal would mean for Black voters in South Carolina. “We will get our butts kicked,” he told the City Paper. The bill, which aims to streamline voting procedures in all 46 counties, is a thinly veiled effort to suppress voting, Kimpson said.

The effort is part of a national push by Republicans to bend election procedures from within state legislatures, kickstarted by lost 2020 elections that tipped the balance of power in Washington.

S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson | Provided

In 2017, torch-carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, marched against the removal of Confederate statues, chanting provocations that have become the elemental basis for Republican-backed voting reform efforts across the United States: “You will not replace us!”

The cries of neo-Nazis, racists, alt-right extremists and every other varietal of Trump-era hate in Charlottesville were nothing new, even for our time. The myth of so-called “white replacement theory” has long stoked fear that the time is approaching when white people will become a racial minority. Mass killers in Charleston, New Zealand and elsewhere used the myth as justification for their heinous acts.

White citizens have held disproportionate financial wealth and political power in America since its founding. Invigorated by Barack Obama’s 2008 election, modern conservatives have mostly continued advocating the domestic economic infrastructure that created and
sustained historic wealth and power disparities into the present day.

Now, after an election in which high turnout from Black voters helped flip control of the White House and U.S. Senate, preservation of conservative power is at the core of legislation floating through state legislatures.

All that is to say: The struggle to control who gets power in America has been with us for a long time.

A violent legacy
The ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 guaranteed the right to vote to men of all races, including the formerly enslaved. The third “Reconstruction amendment” radically increased voting among Africans Americans. With formerly enslaved people outnumbering white people in South Carolina and elsewhere, Black voter turnout expanded dramatically. But, a rush of racist laws and white supremacist violence effectively ended mass Black participation in elections in many areas of the South.

Some states, like South Carolina, used the momentum of the collapse of Reconstruction to further codify voter suppression into state law using a variety of tools.

Poll taxes, originally intended for legitimate revenue collection, were eventually used to disenfranchise voters in the South, particularly African Americans and poor white people. Requirements in South Carolina’s Constitution of 1895 that voters had to prove ability to read and write English were also used to suppress votes by poor and Black voters in the South, where literacy rates for African-American citizens
lagged until the 1940s.

But, literacy tests were prevalent outside the South as well, as they were seen as keeping society’s undesirables — the poor, immigrants or the uninformed — from voting. Literacy test laws remained on the books in several states, including New York and Connecticut, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally banned the practice.

Poll taxes were just one common method of voter suppression

But, violent voter suppression also played a significant role in discouraging voters as well and proved instrumental in thwarting Reconstruction. After successful federal Reconstruction efforts enabled voting by formerly enslaved people and their descendants, white paramilitary groups like Wade Hampton’s Red Shirts terrorized Black voters across South Carolina. Violence and force and the threat of force became effective methods of reasserting and preserving white-majority power.

New approaches
New efforts that could have the effect of suppressing votes are once again springing from legislatures across the country. The measures’ Republican sponsors maintain the proposals aim to streamline and regulate elections. But, critics question the motives behind the laws, as actor Samuel L. Jackson reflected in a Joe Biden campaign ad last year: “If your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t work so hard to stop it.”

In March, Georgia state legislators passed a set of new election laws in response to widespread mail-in absentee voting during the pandemic-ridden 2020 election in which Democrats made up ground in the Peach State, ultimately pushing the U.S. Senate into Democratic hands with the election of U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

The new rules, signed into law by Georgia’s governor March 24, require proof of identity for requesting an absentee ballot, regulate where and when drop boxes can be used to collect absentee ballots, shorten the period for early and absentee voting during a runoff
election, restructure the state’s election oversight body and prohibit food and drink distribution at polling locations.

Some of the Georgia rules, like those requiring identification in order to vote, are already on the books in South Carolina and 33 other states. But, the laws are routinely criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups as having a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.

The New Georgia Project, backed by former Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams, is suing state leaders on behalf of voting rights groups over the laws. “These provisions lack any justification for their burdensome and discriminatory effects on voting,” the lawsuit claims. “Instead, they represent a hodgepodge of unnecessary restrictions that target almost every aspect of the voting process but serve no legitimate purpose or compelling state interest other than to make absentee, early and election-day voting more difficult — especially for minority voters.”

Stacey Abrams | Provided

Bennettsville Rep. Patricia Henegan, chair of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, told the City Paper South Carolina Republicans are taking a less overt approach to voter suppression. Nationwide, more than 360 bills to restrict voting have been proposed to clamp down
on voting in response to the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan voting rights think tank. In Henegan’s assessment, South Carolina lawmakers are introducing more subtle, innovative ways to suppress voting.

Bennettsville Rep. Patricia Henegan | Provided

One proposed bill in South Carolina, H.3444, would give the State Election Commission the authority to determine election policies and procedures, or set uniform rules, in all counties. The bill would give the governor the power to dictate election laws through commission members, appointed by the governor.

Republicans have maintained a firm hold in both South Carolina legislative bodies and the governorship since 2003. The South Carolina proposal is effectively an attempt at the party level to control elections, Kimpson said. The bill passed the House with Republican support and is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democratic state Rep. J.A. Moore of Hanahan, said Republicans are hoping to stall the effects of demographic shifts in the state.

“Republicans in South Carolina are trying to take preemptive actions to make sure they can suppress voters from changing the landscape in South Carolina,” he told Charleston’s ABC News 4 (WCIV-TV) in March.

Democratic state Rep. J.A. Moore of Hanahan | Provided

In Charleston County, where election administrators aggressively encouraged mail-in absentee voting during the pandemic, officials are continuing to take steps to make it easier to vote. A special in-person absentee voting location is being set up ahead of an upcoming local election on Sullivan’s Island.

County board of elections project manager Isaac Cramer believes the local agency is already doing what it can to conduct smooth elections without the new state law.

“This is something we already do,” Cramer told WCIV-TV. “It’s such a joy to see people across the board exercising their right to vote. That’s their voice. We’re the gatekeepers of democracy.”

If passed, the South Carolina bill will have the same ‘kick butt’ effect as any historical violent measure, Kimpson said, calling it the beginning of a slippery slope within state government. That may be a steep slope in Charleston County, where voters lean more toward liberal politics. New rules could mean a greater possibility of electing more conservative representation.

Kimpson sees the bill possibly passing both bodies this legislative session and more certainly passing before the 2022 mid-term election. The measure easily passed the House, where Republicans enjoy a two-to-one majority, but Kimpson said the law could see more friction in the Senate, where procedural rules could slow hasty consideration.