AUG. 15, 2014 -- Critics of the state law that requires voters to now show a photo identification card often complained that such a law wasn’t needed because there weren’t a plethora of cases of voter fraud, the supposed reason that GOP legislators wanted the measure.
Nevertheless, the voter ID bill passed in 2011, only to be blocked later that year by a federal judge. The state sued and eventually won as long as it agreed to allow voters to “opt out” of the voter ID requirement by signing an affidavit if they felt they had a “reasonable impediment” for getting an ID.
So the first big test of the new law was the June 10 primaries. More than 450,000 South Carolina voters turned up at the polls with the Republican primary garnering about two thirds of voters.
According to state election data, only 46 provisional ballots weren’t counted because of voters not having proper identification. Just 23 voters entered the voting booth after signing affidavits that they faced an ID impediment.
Hooray, said state election officials in July, noting the lack of problems at the polls showed the voter ID law worked well.
Not so fast. Few problems over identification at the polls has nothing to do with whether the law worked, analysts say. In fact, they say more research needs to be done to figure out, for example, if the law actually chilled voting by frightening properly-registered voters from going to the polls because they didn’t have a photo ID.
David Fleming, an assistant political science professor at Furman University, said primary voting data from one election in June made it difficult to assess the law’s impact.
“We don’t know who didn’t show up to vote because of voter ID laws,” he said.
A 2010 state study showed 178,175 registered voters, 35.8 percent of whom were black, didn’t have a state driver’s license or state-issued ID.
Electorate is splitting by race, age
But voting data appear to show a shifting electorate that seems to be becoming more partisan by race, according to an analysis of two similar primaries -- the 2006 and 2014 June elections. In the statewide off-year elections of 2002 and 2010, voter turnout was much higher, which likely was due to the open, competitive primaries for governor and other offices.
In 2006 and 2014, incumbent Republican governors were in re-election mode. During those years, the number of voters registered in the state grew by 15 percent from 2.4 million to 2.8 million.
As highlighted in the chart at right, fewer voters overall cast ballots in the 2014 races than in any off-year elections in this century. Just under 16 percent of registered voters went to the polls, compared to 17.6 percent in 2006, 24.9 percent in 2002 and 26.5 percent in 2010. Some other statewide trends (see this chart for more detail):
- Democrats lost white voters. In 2014, some 42,004 white voters went to Democratic booths, a drop of almost 17,000 voters from eight years earlier.
- Republicans picked up white voters. But the GOP increased in white voters by more than 44,000, from 268,444 voters in 2006 to 312,406 voters in 2014.
- Primaries are more polarized by race. As the GOP attracted more white voters, its number of non-white voters decreased slightly in the eight-year period, while Democratic non-white voters grew by just over 3,000 in the 2014 primary to cast 90,317 ballots.
- Fewer young primary voters. The 2014 primaries had only 5,443 voters aged 18-24 -- far fewer than the 8,610 in 2002, 6,977 in 2006 and 11,903 in 2010. Voters from 25 to 44 years old also dropped -- from 87,135 in 2006 to 70,799 this year.
Looking deeper at county data
As can be seen in the above data, it’s hard to draw conclusions about whether the voter ID bill had an impact in the June 2014 primaries. It is compelling to note, however, that while registration grew 15 percent over the eight-year period, non-white voting in the Democratic primary remained virtually the same.
If you drill down into county voting results, a more focused picture emerges, although the data is far from conclusive, noted Lynn Teague of the state League of Women Voters.
In the Democratic primary, voting totals went down in 32 counties of 46 for a 13,741 drop in votes from 2006 to 2014. Voting went up in counties that appeared to have important local elections and in some more urbanized areas.
- Voting by white Democrats dropped dramatically -- by more than 28 percent, while non-whites voting in the Democratic primary rose by just 3.7 percent. In fact, white vote in the Democratic primary dropped in 38 counties of 46 total as more white voters appeared to leave for the Republican Party. (Some, however, may have left in the 2014 temporarily because of a lack of enthusiasm for Democratic candidates and a more robust GOP primary; data from the coming general election will be illustrative.)
- Non-white vote dropped in 24 of 46 counties.
- In 11 mostly rural, poorer counties where blacks comprised about half or more of the population, the voting percentage dropped in eight counties -- from just a few votes in Marion County to more than 43 percent in Fairfield County. Before the election, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that these counties were places where at least 5 percent of blacks didn’t have a state-issued ID, which caused the organization to consider these counties as places where people might not show up because of the new ID law.
Meanwhile in the GOP primary, more than 53,000 additional white voters went to the polls in 2014 compared to 2006. White vote increased in 35 of 46 counties.
- Non-white vote changed little in the GOP primary, which comprised just over 8 percent of total GOP voters. But non-white vote went up in 18 of 46 counties and down in 28 counties, which some might say indicates a growing polarization by race in the parties.
- In the 11 targeted counties highlighted above, nonwhite vote went down marginally by 221 votes in seven counties and rose marginally by a total of 44 votes in four counties.
The data from voting doesn’t help in assessing whether the voter ID law worked, as suggested by the state Election Commission.
“We have no counterfactual,” said Teague of the League of Women Voters. “We don’t know how these numbers might have differed without the photo ID law. Even when nonwhite voting looks stable or somewhat higher, we might have seen a larger rise without photo ID.”
Is there a way to find out more about the impact of the law?
Yes: A poll of registered voters who stayed home to find out why they didn’t vote. And that would cost some money.
But Teague, who reviewed the voting data carefully, says such an effort is important.
“Overall, 10 counties identified as having high numbers of registered voters without photo ID, including eight in which overall turnout declined,” she said. “None of the counties that were not so identified experienced a decline in percentage of voters participating in the primaries.
“This suggests that the photo ID law could have reduced turnout. These counties also have high levels of poverty, so there could be other factors at work, but the numbers at least suggest that photo ID must be considered as a potential factor in lower citizen participation.”