Hopes fade for reform bill

COLUMBIA --- Efforts to change the voting process in South Carolina have provoked plenty of angst and pages of legislation, but the prospect that voters will see any changes next election is increasingly cloudy.

Lawmakers continue to argue about the motives behind the dozens of proposals, but at least one thing is clear: The electoral process has gotten more attention this year than usual.

South Carolina's legislature introduced 60 election-reform bills this year, more than any year since 2001, according to data maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The proposals are targeting everything from how to validate petition signatures and how many signatures there should be, to early voting and the number of early-voting centers and whether a photo ID should be required.

South Carolina is among roughly a dozen states that does not allow early in-person voting.

On Thursday a Senate subcommittee approved H. 3418, a bill to require a specific type of photo ID, such as a passport or one issued by the DMV. The bill was amended to also create a 15-day no-excuse early voting period. The subcommittee's lone Democrat and early-voting advocate, Sen. John Scott of Columbia, tried to disentangle the two pieces. He ended up voting against the bill when his effort was rejected.

"The effort here is to try to find some consensus, to find some blending of these two proposals of early voting and voter ID," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who led the subcommittee.

In February, members of the Legislative Black Caucus and some white Democrats protested the photo-ID bill and called it a return to segregation-era tactics to prevent blacks from voting.

The NAACP, League of Women Voters, American Civil Liberties Union and AARP have all opposed the photo-ID bill on the grounds that it creates obstacles to voting.

"This appears to be a solution in search of a problem," said Victoria Middleton, head of South Carolina's ACLU chapter.

Democrats called the bill and a host of other Republican proposals a backlash against President Obama's victory in November and the crowds of first-time voters.

"There's no question that's what you're seeing," said Rep. Karl Allen, D-Greenville. "You saw this all over the nation, an increase in the number of people exercising their right to vote. If you want to stifle that ... you put restrictions that hopefully will give you some advantage and diminish the turnout."

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said his caucus is trying to make sure only the people who are registered to vote cast ballots.

"We felt like on our side of the aisle, it was a simple request," he said, adding that a photo ID is required to board a plane, cash a check, access your bank account and buy Sudafed.

"When you're talking about electing the president of the United States, we feel like it's a reasonable request," he said.

As for the bill's chances, now that a Senate subcommittee tacked on the early-voting measure, Mr. Bingham noted that House lawmakers separated the two issues so they wouldn't get bogged down in disagreements.

"If the Senate has not even got it through full committee, it's going to be hard for them to get three readings and to get it back to the House," he said.