SUMTER, SC — Voters in South Carolina who do not have photo identification can still vote in the upcoming presidential primary. But elections officials and state lawmakers do not want them to know that.

South Carolina’s voter ID is far less strict than many of the other 35 states that have passed laws to require voters to show identification at the polls. Because its law was passed while the U.S. Department of Justice was still required to approve changes to its election laws, the law allows anyone without an ID to vote if they can have a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining ID.

That “impediment” can include anything from family responsibilities to a lack of transportation or disability. The voter simply has to sign an affidavit listing whatever reason that may be, and the ballot counts unless someone proves the voter was lying about his or her identity.

But this law has not been presented clearly to South Carolinians, and voting advocates tell ThinkProgress that many voters are likely to be confused by the complicated law and the state Election Commission’s messaging.

This poster can be seen at polling locations and other public places across the state:



Only in the fine print at the bottom does the poster concede that people without ID can still vote, and their ballots will be counted.

The law also allows people who forget their ID to cast a provisional ballots. Those people must then show their ID to their county election commission later in the week during a hearing. This stipulation, like the other, is not clearly explained to voters.

Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has also contributed to the confusion by frequently talking about her state’s voter ID law without mentioning that it does not actually require an ID to vote.

She and other state officials are not eager to make the process easier for voters who do not have ID — a group that includes 178,000 South Carolinians, disproportionately non-whites, according to the state’s numbers. Susan Dunn, legal director of the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told ThinkProgress that South Carolina’s actual voter ID law doesn’t make for good sound bites.

“It’s easier to say you have to have ID, but you don’t have to have ID,” she told ThinkProgress.

Dunn said the complicated requirements are likely to confuse both poll workers and voters. It’s not clear how many people may be misled by the messaging and decide not to cast a ballot during the February 20 Republican and February 27 Democratic presidential primaries. This year marks the first presidential election in South Carolina with a voter ID law in place. But based on how similar measures have effected other states and how voter ID laws depress minority turnout, it’s likely to keep a significant number of people away from the polls.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and eliminated the preclearance requirement, South Carolina was one of a handful of states that had to clear any proposed changes to its election systems by the U.S. Department of Justice. The importance of that requirement — Section 5 of the VRA — was exhibited clearly in 2011.

That year, the state’s Republican-led legislature cited the possibility of voter fraud when it passed a bill that would have required all voters to show photo identification at the polls. But the DOJ rejected the proposed rule change, finding that almost 9 percent of South Carolina voters do not possess a DMV-issued photo identification card that would allow them to vote. The federal government also found that non-white voters were nearly 20 percent more likely than white voters to lack ID, and therefore be effectively disenfrachised. In total, the DOJ said that 81,938 minority citizens were registered to vote but do not have ID.

“Until South Carolina succeeds in substantially addressing the racial disparities described above, however, the state cannot meet its burden of proving that, when compared to the benchmark standard, the voter identification requirements proposed… will not have a retrogressive effect,” then-Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez wrote in December 2011.

Another misleading sign, seen in the Sumter County Election Commission office.

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

But, determined to have a voter ID law in place before the 2012 presidential election, the GOP-controlled legislature tried again.

The new version of the law included the “reasonable impediment” exemption which would allow for voters to claim they have a reasonable explanation for not possessing an ID. In order for the DOJ to clear the law, South Carolina had to vow that this exemption would be made for voters in every county across the state and that “reasonable impediment” would be extremely loosely defined.

That version of the law was challenged in federal court. While the court ultimately approved the law, it was delayed and did not go into place until 2013, after President Obama’s reelection.

On Thursday, Brenda Williams, a voting rights advocate, helped drive an elderly friend, also a voting advocate, to the county election commission to cast her ballot. Noticing the confusing posters and voters being asked for ID, she noted that the process is likely to drive away low-income, minority voters.

But she did not fault the county elections officials. “They’re just following procedure,” she said, surveying the growing line of people waiting to cast their ballot early. “They don’t make the law.”