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How Will South Carolina's Voter ID Law Affect the Democratic Primary?

As Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton work to court minority voters, a new law may keep them away from the polls.
Hillary Clinton speaks to voters in South Carolina. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton speaks to voters in South Carolina. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Coming out of turbulent electoral contests in New Hampshire and Iowa, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton now have their sights set on South Carolina. But both campaigns face a potentially major roadblock: Some of their most loyal supporters may not be able to cast their votes.

MSNBC reports that "confusion" over South Carolina's new voter ID laws could keep thousands of citizens away from the polls. The new measure, which voting rights advocates claim was introduced in response to the record turnout among African Americans and Hispanics in the 2008 elections, requires voters to present an accepted form of photo identification unless they're burdened by a "reasonable impediment," like lack of transportation or family responsibilities. After a lengthy legal battle with the Department of Justice over whether the new measure constituted a disproportionate burden in the run-up to the 2012 elections, the law went into effect in 2013. But, according to the state, there are at least 178,000 primarily non-white South Carolinians who don't carry any form of identification the law requires.

This poses an electoral challenge for the Clinton and Sanders campaigns looking to eke out every vote they can in the upcoming South Carolina and Nevada challenges. There's been plenty of research to suggest voter ID restrictions work against poor citizens, many of whom can't afford identification. A new working paper from political scientists at the University of California–San Diego that analyzed turnout between 2008 and 2012 found strict voter ID laws "consistently and significantly decreased turnout not just among traditionally Democratic-leaning groups, like blacks and Hispanics, but among Republican voters too," the Washington Post reports.

There are at least 178,000 primarily non-white South Carolinians who don't carry any form of identification the law requires.

A major instance of voter suppression would be catastrophic for the Clinton campaign. Barack Obama only managed to beat Hillary Clinton by 154,000 votes in the 2008 South Carolina primary, despite turnout among black voters surpassing 70 percent for the historic candidate. The surge of black voters who sent Obama to the White House aren't necessarily a sure bet with the Clinton campaign, even if she mops up more than 80 percent of of African-American voters on February 27, as some polls would suggest. With Clinton and Sanders essentially tied among white voters, Clintons appeal to the black community, which stretches back to Bill's first run in 1992, may not be the secret weapon Hillary can rely on to win the state.

That's not to say Sanders might not be negatively impacted by these voting laws as well. The 2010 Census showed that South Carolina's non-Hispanic white population has declined by at least five percent since 1981 as the state becomes less homogenous, meaning less of a sure constituency for Sanders (despite his appeal to Millennial voters). Similarly, Sanders is favored by low-income voters, who are also disproportionately affected by voter ID laws. At the end of the day, it may not even matter with Clinton's 25-point lead over the senator from Vermont.

While it's likely voter ID laws may prove a bigger problem in the general election than the primaries (especially since Republicans have essentially orchestrated mass disenfranchisement to quash Democratic turnout), the stakes are still high within the Democratic Party. Coming out of the very white Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton and Sanders have both been courting black voters and sparring over their own influence in the black community. Sanders has seemingly breached the "firewall" of black electorate still rooting for a Clinton in the White House, a demographic group critics allege the Clinton campaign has effectively taken for granted. The New Yorker's Amy Davidson provides an excellent summary:

The appeals started the morning after New Hampshire. Sanders flew to New York and had breakfast with the Reverend Al Sharpton, at Sylvia's, in Harlem. ("It's very important that he sent a signal," Sharpton told reporters.) Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of "Between the World and Me," who had previously criticized Sanders for not supporting reparations (neither does Clinton), said that he would vote for him, largely because of his ambitious economic vision. And Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow," published an article in The Nation titled "Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote." Alexander asks why Clinton continues to receive the endorsements of black leaders, given that, during the passage of her husband's welfare-reform bill and the 1994 crime bill, she used "racially coded rhetoric," speaking about "super-predators." (Sanders voted for the crime bill but against welfare reform.) Then, as Sanders supporters began gleefully citing Coates and Alexander, Charles Blow, the Times columnist, warned against what he called "Bernie-splaining," the process through which minorities are instructed that, whether they realize it or not, Sanders will make everything better for them.

To be clear, both Sanders and Clinton have railed against the sort of voting-rights laws that states like South Carolina and Texas have adopted in recent years. And with good reason: The voter fraud that Republicans trumpet to push these restriction doesn't even exist. In 2014, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt examined data on "specific, credible allegation[s]" of fraud for the Brennan Center for Justice to see if there was any truth to those claims; he found only 31 instances of actual fraud since 2001.

But a victory in South Carolina has the potential to shape the momentum of the Democratic primary contest, just as Iowa and New Hampshire elevated Bernie Sanders to the level of Serious Contender. Winning South Carolina is a proxy for how a candidate might fare with the youngest, most diverse electorate since Obama's election in 2008 (and youth matters: South Carolina's voter ID restriction doesn't include student IDs). This momentum is important, especially in South Carolina: As the Chicago Tribune notes, "it wasn't until Obama won the Iowa caucuses that African-Americans began to rally behind the idea that they could help elect the first black president. By the time the campaigns got to South Carolina, African-Americans—initially Clinton's most ardent supporters—had said goodbye."

Whereas Iowa and New Hampshire were exercises in political myth-making, the media has built South Carolina into a racial litmus test, especially for Clinton. Despite the loyalty paid to Bill by black voters, the Clintons' relationship with the black community is fraught with legislative betrayals. And that relationship is coming to head in the political media as Sanders seems an increasingly more exciting contender, both among young black voters who are growing attracted to Sanders' economic message, and to the larger political ecosystem that's finally coming to terms with his status as a viable candidate. While the over-under on minority voters seems like a statistical crapshoot, it's going to break Clinton's campaign more than it will Sanders'.