CHARLESTON, S.C. — North Charleston resident Leslie Deetman has decided she’ll vote for Joe Biden in Saturday’s Democratic Primary. The 28-year-old, who has never voted before, has had her door knocked by canvassers from Teams Biden and Bernie Sanders, and settled on the former Vice President because of his connection to President Barack Obama—and because she wants to “get Trump out of office.”
The only problem is she’s not registered to vote, and the out-of-state Biden canvasser who spoke with her two days before the election didn’t know to tell her that in South Carolina, you have to complete your voter registration 30 days before the election to cast your ballot. Deetman will not even be able to cast a provisional ballot for Joe Biden–something that some states with same-day voter registration would allow.
Unfortunately, Deetman’s story is just one example of how South Carolina voters can get left out of the democratic process, through technicalities in the mechanics of voting in the Palmetto State.
With the complexities of absentee voting, the challenges of voter registration and the rise in confusing voter ID laws, the South Carolina Election Commission has spun a web of obstacles ostensibly meant to protect democracy, but which inevitably catches some voters in the bureaucratic netting. Compounding the problem, county Voter Registration and Election Commission Offices lack the resources for voter outreach to guide people through their systems.
“Despite the fact that the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, here were are in 2020 and we’re still having to battle disenfranchisement and voter suppression,” says Dr. Brenda C. Williams, a retired family practice doctor in Sumter, South Carolina. While in private practice, Williams and her husband both worked to encourage their patients to participate in the democratic process, asking them if they were registered to vote “as routine as taking their blood pressure.”
In 2009, the couple started The Family Unit, a non-profit organization that helps people living in poverty participate in elections and registers people in jail who are still pre-trial. In the days leading up to the election, Williams spends her time driving around Sumter and North Sumter helping people with their absentee ballots and giving out her phone number so people can reach her if they have problems on Election Day.
“Despite the fact that the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, here were are in 2020 and we’re still having to battle disenfranchisement and voter suppression.”
At one house stop in North Sumter, where Williams went to help resident Queen Kennedy fill out her absentee ballot, she ran into three men in their 30s, one of whom called out to her, “Dr. Williams, I know you from County.” Williams says she didn’t recognize the men exactly, but “County” refers to the jail, where she has personally registered more than 7,000 pre-trial inmates to vote. In 2008, Williams was the first person ever to go register people in the jail.
Williams goes door to door to help with the absentee ballot process because in South Carolina there are many ways your absentee vote can be discarded from the final count, which gives rise to the so-called “error rate.” There is no early voting in South Carolina but you can vote absentee with one of 19 excuses for up to 30 days before Election Day. The challenge, Williams explains, comes “once they get that absentee ballot in that big envelope. It comes with four to five pieces of paper… [and] if there’s one little piece of paper in the envelope with your ballot, your ballot will not be counted. Period.”
The Wednesday before the election, Kennedy opened her absentee ballot package in the presence of Williams and one of Kennedy’s neighbors. In a joking tone, Williams scolded the neighbor about smoking; the man laughed and said “Yes, Dr. Williams,” as he discarded the cigarette. Although most people in the North Sumter area met Williams through her non-profit work, they also knew her background as a doctor, as became clear as I followed her on her non-medical rounds.
Once Kennedy filled out her ballot, it had to be placed in an envelope that had come with two other pieces of paper providing information on the voting process, which Kennedy had to remove if her vote was to be counted. She removed those papers and then placed the envelope with her ballot in a second envelope called the voter’s oath envelope, which had a quarter-sized “I Voted!” sticker inside that also had to be removed. Then Kennedy had to sign the voter's oath envelope, as did Williams as her witness.
In 2016, 412 absentee ballots were not counted in Richland County (site of Columbia, the state capital) because they were returned without a witness signature and the office did not attempt to contact these voters about the mistake, according to emails between Williams and the County Election Official. Instead the votes go into an “Attention Envelope” and are shredded by the county after two years.
“I call it a graveyard,” Williams said. “Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of ballots are thrown out because of a witness signature. Because of a technicality. Because of a missing voter signature or a missing witness signature.”
After Kennedy and Williams handle all of the ballot paper work, there’s one more form that has to be completed to enable Williams to then hand in the absentee ballot at the County Election Office. This time things ran smoothly, and Kennedy thanked Williams with a hug and a smile.
“I call it a graveyard,” Williams said. “Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of ballots are thrown out because of a technicality."
When Williams assesses her work, she says, “The reaction has been very good ... among the poor, among the indigent people in our community. These are the same individuals that have come to us over the decades for help [at her and her husband’s doctors office] … When we go into the community our reception is more than great. The people who are disenfranchised, the indigent, the poor, the forgotten people, they welcome us with open arms.”
From the government officials, however, the reception she’s encountered has been much different. South Carolina has a de-centralized election system, so unlike other states where there’s one Secretary of State in charge of the elections, decisions in the Palmetto State are made at a county level. Williams reaches out to each of the county directors individually when she tracks down which ballots have not been counted and why. When she does get answers, they’re often not very satisfying. “Their responses, I find to be questionable, not productive to helping us get these individuals and getting their absentee ballots counted,” Williams says.
But she also says she feels like it’s her responsibility to continue the struggle. “We [Williams and her husband] are blessed in the positions we’re in … We believe the biblical scripture which says ‘To whom much is given much is expected.’”
Most of the people affected by the hurdles imposed on absentee voting are the elderly and people who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day, as per one of the pre-approved excuses. But for those who go to vote in person, things can be equally as challenging.
In 2011, South Carolina passed a strict voter ID law that challenged the voting rights of many people who either didn’t have an official ID or didn’t have a birth certificates to obtain one. In her family practice, Williams says she’s encountered many people born in rural areas who were in that position. She and her husband relied on the pro-bono help of local attorneys to help chase down those records from their Sumter office, while in Columbia, Brett Bursey, executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network (SCPN), was taking this issue to court.
Bursey and the SCPN have sued the state numerous times over its curtailment of voting rights. South Carolina has a long history of voter suppression that specifically targeted black people and occasionally poor white people.
Then-Governor Nikki Haley (R) signed the voter ID mandate into law in 2011, which she had to argue "was not racist." The SCPN took the case to court, and the law was scaled back. Instead of explicitly requiring an ID to vote, it now requires that officials at polling places ask for an ID, but allows voters to cast a ballot if they can cite the impediment that has kept them from having one.
The state also had to find a way to get people free IDs, so it now offers voter registration cards with a photo to South Carolinians able to go to the county commission office and request one. Those who don’t have an acceptable voter ID or don’t have the means to get one on Election Day can fill out “impediment ballots,” citing why they’ve encountered an impediment to getting an ID.
But Bursey doesn’t view that legal decision as a win for South Carolina voting right. “We won the battle, but lost the war. The confusion was already done,” he says.
If for some reason a South Carolina voter forgets their voter ID, then they fill out a provisional ballot saying they forgot their ID. For these voters, however, that just begins the voting process. Two days after a primary or three days after a general election, there are hearings where everyone who filled out a provisional ballot must show up to court and present their ID to a judge to have their ballot counted. Most people don’t realize you have to take that second step, says Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina.
Those who cast impediment ballots are also put on that court appearance list and they can face an adversarial process. Anyone can show up and challenge that voter’s impediment to having a voter ID and get the ballot thrown out, Bursey explains.
The connection to South Carolina’s history as a slave state, its Jim Crow era laws and segregation, and today’s voting restrictions are inseparable for Bursey, who’s been working in the state for more than 50 years. “You can’t [look at] today unless you know who wrote the rules. The rules that are running the election today, right now, were written in 1895 by Ben Tillman. And if you look up Ben Tillman in the encyclopedia, he is the archetype of a Southern bigot.”
South Carolina’s history and its current voting obstacles have convinced many residents—disproportionately black and poor—that voting is not worth the effort. As the counties that run the elections in the state continue the bureaucratic troubles, That has placed a special burden to organize and engage voters on activists like Williams and Bursey—and on the campaigns themselves.
“Retail politics is very important. It’s starting to get back to that. Especially in the primaries, because they have to really get their people out,” says Seth J. Whipper, a former General Assembly member and part-time judge in North Charleston. During the past decade, he says, campaigns have relied on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to substitute for door-to-door campaigning, but recently the outreach has started to return to a more on-the-ground style of organizing. “Each way has its role. But I think you have to have some flesh to flesh contact, because people have to decide if they like you,” he says.
Whipper held his seat for 20 years before retiring from government and has seen the changing styles of voter contact. In 2008, when Barack Obama ran in the South Carolina primary, Whipper recalls, he went everywhere in the state and made a lot of individual contacts with people. You can’t beat relationships, Whipper concludes, and that’s what’s kept candidate Joe Biden in the race here.
But past relationships alone aren’t enough to carry people to the polls, Whipper adds. noting that businessman Tom Steyer has cut into Biden’s support by being everywhere he can in the state with his unlimited funds and sending more direct mail than any other candidate in the race.
Relationships also aren’t enough to inform people on how—rather than for whom—to cast their votes. David, a high school student from Chicago, says that most of the people volunteering in Biden’s North Charleston office in the week before the primary were, like him, from out of state. He says that although they’d been briefed on the rules for voting in South Carolina, some of those rules are still foreign to him. One week, he adds, may not be enough time to learn all the details about voting in a state where each county’s rules are different.
Polling in second place to Biden is Sen. Sanders, whose volunteers have been about a 50-50 mix of in- and out-of-staters who have also been studying the state’s obstacle-ridden voting landscape. Sanders field organizers Ruthie Guthrie, 21, and Montana Wolper, 23, prepared canvassing volunteers in the back room of a CBD dispensary in downtown Charleston before Saturday’s primary, outlining the basics of the in-person ID rules and the absentee ballot rules.
Guthrie told volunteers that it was too late for voters to mail in their absentee ballots since they might not arrive by Election Day. Unlike other states where absentee ballots are counted if they’re the postmarked by Election Day, South Carolina tosses ballots that haven’t arrived by the time the polls close.
Given the state’s ongoing efforts to make voting difficult, turnout is typically low in South Carolina primaries, ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent of the electorate in primaries, and roughly 70 percent participation in presidential-year general elections.
This Saturday, Bursey will be monitoring the voter-help hotline control board. He fully expects the regular problems will arise.
“I’m not concerned that there’s going to be any real problems that we haven’t already been having with a lack of trained poll managers, lack of money to pay poll mangers, the way the system is set up,” he says.
South Carolina has ensured that nothing can be changed about this year’s Palmetto State Primary. Deetman will not be able to vote for Joe Biden tomorrow. But there is still a lot that can be done to help civic participation before November’s election.