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2002-2004, South Carolina Statehouse Report. Published weekly during the S.C. legislative session. South Carolina Statehouse Report is a media project of The Brack Group, Charleston, S.C.

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Black voters may be secret weapon this year
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

OCT. 20, 2002 -- More black voter participation may be the secret weapon for whether Democrats do well this election year or wither on the vine.

"Since 1968, South Carolina has had the lowest black turnout in the country," said S.C. Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston. Other Southern states - Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, for example - routinely have elections in which 70 percent of registered blacks go the polls. In South Carolina, it's closer to half.

Columbia's Jim Felder of the S.C. Voter Education Project knows that too. For months, he and Ford have been working quietly to energize black turnout for November 5.

By Election Day, they would have held 83 voter rallies in 38 counties with attendees from black churches, fraternities, sororities and organizations like the Shriners and Masons. They say most of the 24,000 people who have attended so far are new participants in the political process. They guess they've touched another 75,000 through flyers, letters, preachers and other outreach efforts.

They also figure if they do their job, newly-energized black voters will make the difference in lots of elections, which should benefit Democrats because blacks cast ballots for Democrats more than 90 percent of the time.

Here's how it could work. If voting trends in non-presidential years in South Carolina continue, about 53 percent of people who can vote in this election will actually vote. Out of the 1.1 million votes cast under this scenario, about 291,000 blacks (27 percent) would vote. But if blacks boost their participation rates to 30 percent, an extra 32,000 voters will be added to the mix. Those extra voters could make a big under-the-radar-screen difference in multiple statewide races that many say are too close to call.

But what if overall turnout is higher than expected? If turnout reaches a non-presidential high, as it did in 1994 with the Republican Revolution in South Carolina and across the country, efforts to boost black turnout would make less of a difference. An increase in 40,000 new black voters likely would be offset by 80,000 additional white voters.

Regardless, Felder wants more blacks to participate in the electoral process now, just as he has his whole life. In the 1960s after the Voting Rights Act passed, he started the S.C. Voter Education Project to educate blacks about their rights to vote and to get them participate. The project went on the back burner after 1974 when he, Herbert Fielding of Charleston and I.S. Leevy Johnson of Columbia broke the color barrier at the modern Statehouse by being elected to the General Assembly.

Two years ago, Felder dusted off the Voter Education Project when he concluded black participation was dwindling and other organizations, including political parties, weren't doing much about it. Since then, the Project has been under the establishment's radar screen (until Felder let the cat out of the bag at a College of Charleston rally two weeks ago).

"We're seeing a new excitement out there in the black community," Felder said. "We're going to increase our turnout and that will increase our bargaining powers in other arenas."

Black voters are excited again because they're learning and being inspired about what black officials are doing now. For example, the state today has a dozen black sheriffs, more than 30 black mayors, 31 black members of the General Assembly and hundreds of black officials in local and school governments.

"A lot of folks aren't aware of this. When they realize what they've done, they see what we can do," Felder said.

This year, it also doesn't hurt that two black candidates are running for statewide office as Democrats - Steve Benjamin for attorney general and Rick Wade for secretary of state.

"A lot of folks didn't realize they were black. Once they find out, the light just goes on in their eyes. To run for state office as a black candidate isn't just a dream any more. It's doable."

-- 30 --

11/3: Use your vote wisely: a lesson
10/27: SC GOP to keep control of House
10/20: Black voters may be secret weapon
10/13: Talk is cheap; action takes courage
10/6: Creating sunshine to dampen negative ads
9/29: SC Set to be world leader in news research
9/22: SC Senate shift could be around corner
9/15: Gov's race about barbs, ads, not people
9/8: Shorfall may cause look at prison alternatives
9/2: Revitalize your patriotism by participating
8/25: S.C.'s fiscal situation could be a lot worse
8/18: State wetlands policy needed
8/11: The bully vs. the whiner
8/4: Noah's Ark approach to tax reform
7/28: Two-party system could be political outcome
7/21: State budget woes loom for 2 more years
7/14: Agencies can do better job on Internet
7/5: Thank a guardsman today for service
6/28: Hodges-Sanford race will be wild ride
6/21: Sanford-Peeler race's impact on GOP
6/14: Ethics reform needed now

More done than you'd think(1.23)
More education $ also means cuts (1.22)
PSC reform to come, but when?(1.21)



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