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S.C. votes without new voter ID law

SUMTER, S.C - Dr. Brenda Williams, who grew up in the segregated South, has spent 30 years helping patients register to vote. She considers the state's new voter ID law a reminder of when blacks were forced to sit in the back of the bus.

"It is a way of disenfranchisement of certain segments of our society, primarily African-Americans, the elderly, and the indigent," Williams said in an interview in her office in Sumter, halfway between Columbia and Charleston.

"It is very sad to see our legislators try to turn the clock back," she said.

In all, 85,000 registered voters in South Carolina are without the kind of ID that would be required under the new law, according to a vetting of the voter rolls by the state's department of motor vehicles.

According to the state's own data, blacks in South Carolina are 20 percent more likely than whites to lack a driver's license or a state-issued photo ID. The Justice Department flagged that statistic as evidence that the new law would be discriminatory and blocked it from taking effect under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In addition, many older blacks, born outside of hospitals during segregation, don't even possess a birth certificate, which is required to get a license or state-issued photo ID.

"The issue is that valid birth certificate," said Williams' husband, Joe, who shares her medical practice and critical view of the law.

Without a photo ID, obtaining your birth certificate in South Carolina costs $30, plus shipping costs, and double that if you were born out of state.

"This is a poll tax. This is requiring people to pay money to cast a ballot, and I don't think we want that in this country," Joe said.

The only exceptions for providing a birth certificate are people born in or before 1918, who would be 94 years old. The state is very strict in requiring that every detail be perfect.

DMV executive director Kevin Shwedo said, "If you want me to maintain the integrity of a person's identification, so that people are safer at the end of the day, and we're also not giving out entitlements to those people that don't deserve them, then you've got to ensure that the person coming into your office is the one represented by the ID card."

The Williamses formed a non-profit organization, financed with their own money, to assist people over the hurdles. They discovered if there is an error in a birth certificate, it can cost hundreds of dollars to hire an attorney to amend the document.

"A large number of our elderly patients, particularly those born before 1960, have incorrect birth dates; the names have been misspelled, and this is an extremely common condition. In fact, I would say about ten, fifteen percent of our patients are like this," Joe Williams said.

One of the people helped by the Williams is Joseph Riley: 76 years old, no birth certificate, no driver's license. It's important to him to vote.

"To vote for the president. Put the right fellow there," Riley said.

Twenty-seven-year-old Amanda Wolfe works as a medical transcriptionist for the Williams and lives paycheck to paycheck. She moved from Florida without a driver's license. To make compliance with the new law tougher: She's adopted.

"I had to do research on my own to find out who my birth mother was and everything like that," Wolfe said.

After five months, she tracked down her birth records in Georgia, but Wolfe wasn't done. She's also divorced.

"If you got divorced, you've have to show your divorce decree, 'cause the name changed back," she said.

South Carolina is one of seven states with a law set to take effect this year requiring all voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls - Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, Rhode Island, Wisconsin are the others. Most of them, like South Carolina, are controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, opening the door to accusations that the GOP was trying to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning constituencies - racial minorities, elderly, youth - seen as the most challenged to obtain the ID.

South Carolina state senator Larry Grooms, who was among the law's sponsors, said his only motive was stopping voter fraud.

"I think it's essential to ensure the integrity of the ballot box, and one way of doing it is to make sure that when someone casts their ballot, that they really are that person," Grooms said.

Election officials say voter fraud is very rare, but Grooms says that in 2000, he witnessed people voting more than once in his own district.

State attorney general Alan Wilson is now investigating allegations that 953 votes were cast in multiple, recent elections in the names of people who had died.

Wilson's office is preparing to sue the federal government for blocking the law. It was not in effect during Saturday's primary.

"This bill is discriminatory," Grooms said. "It's discriminatory against those who would cheat this system."

Brenda Williams has heard the arguments about fostering cleaner elections. She stills sees the law as a burden on her community.

She said, "I definitely feel that South Carolina has taken a giant step backward in time in reference to racial discrimination and prejudice."