BRANCHVILLE — Ordinarily a special election to fill an unexpired council term in a small town does not attract a myriad of out-of-town reporters and television crews, much less two U.S. Justice Department monitors from Washington.
But this was no ordinary election. Tuesday’s balloting marked the first test of a new state law requiring voters to either show a photo identification card or give a reason for not having one.
But in the eye of the storm, all seemed calm.
“We have had a very nice day,” Poll Manager Betty Wilson said. The photo ID law was “not a big deal.” She said the key to gaining voters’ cooperation was to greet them and then ask them specifically for a “photo ID.”
Wilson said a handful of voters had to return to their vehicles to fetch their driver’s licenses, but everyone who showed up to vote produced a photo identification card. Two showed a military ID and the rest presented a valid South Carolina driver’s license.
No one exercised the option of citing a “reasonable impediment” to having a photo ID and casting a provisional ballot.
Three candidates were seeking to complete an unexpired term on Branchville Town Council. Sam Whisenhunt Jr. won the election.
Voters trickled in throughout the day, greeting each other and poll workers alike as would be expected in a small town where most of the citizens know each other. Many said later they did not even notice two strangers in the room — a man and a woman, dressed mostly in black, who sat quietly at a table off to the side, watching the voting process and occasionally making notes.
They confirmed that they are election monitors for the U.S. Department of Justice and enjoyed their pizza lunch at Georgio’s in St. George. Beyond that, all they were allowed to tell reporters was how to obtain a news release the department stating that its personnel would monitor the election “to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the election process on the basis of race, color or membership in a minority language group.”
The release continued: “A Civil Rights Division attorney will coordinate federal activities and maintain contact with local election officials.” It said the Justice Department sends hundreds of observers each year to elections across the country.
Several voters said the photo ID check did not slow the check-in process. One said it actually seemed to speed it up.
“You have to have a photo ID for so many things — buy cigarettes and beer, go into a government building — it’s really no big deal,” Herbie Witherspoon said. “The governor has offered to take people” to get photo IDs made, and it only has to be done once.
Robert L. Wolfe Sr. said photo IDs are required in the private sector, too, like shopping at Costco.
“Everyone should exercise their right to vote on every issue in every election,” said Cheryl Hardee, an unsuccessful candidate in a previous Branchville Town Council election. “You need a photo ID for everything else of importance, and there’s really no reason you can’t get one.”
Bob May, who was wearing a “Sons of Anarchy” shirt, said a photo ID requirement “keeps people honest.”
Yolanda Price said she doesn’t buy the argument that the photo ID law is needed to deter fraud. She thinks the law will discourage some people from voting.
Orangeburg County Democratic Party Chairman Betty Henderson said the photo ID requirement is “another form of voter suppression that takes us back to the era of the 1960s where we had to fight just for the right to vote.”
With the first election under the new rules occurring in her “home precinct” in Branchville, “it really hits home today. It saddens me,” she said.
Henderson said the federal monitors “only saw what they could see inside the polling place. They monitored people who were able to vote.”
What they did not see were the people — including some of her own neighbors — who stayed home because they had no photo ID card to show at the polling place, she said.
Those neighbors could have used the “reasonable impediment” provision if they knew how, and if they knew the provision exists, Henderson said. But “they don’t want to go through all that” and then not know until the certification hearing whether their votes will be counted or thrown out.
“You like to know before you leave the polling place that your vote has counted,” she said.
The certification hearing for Branchville’s election will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday in County Council chambers in the County Administrative Centre, 1437 Amelia St., Orangeburg.
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