COLUMBIA — Black leaders in South Carolina said Thursday that the response by the author of the state's voter ID law to a racist email should help persuade a panel of federal judges to rule against it.
But the state lawmaker who received the emailed attack on the law and responded “Amen” – Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach – said he erred in his response. He said it would be unfair for the court to base its decision on the offensive and ignorant attitudes of one constituent.
South Carolina sued the U.S. Department of Justice in February, arguing that it was wrong to block a law requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls. A three-judge federal panel began hearing the case Monday in Washington.
On Thursday, a separate three-judge panel in the same federal courthouse ruled against a Texas voter ID law.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, a civil rights leader and pastor in Charleston, and state NAACP president Lonnie Randolph said an email discussed in court Tuesday should lead to the same outcome.
“I think it reflects the mindset. Your rhetoric says a lot about your intent,” Darby said. “It's a shame a legislator chose to give it an `Amen.“’
The email read: “I don't buy that garbage that if a poor black person or an elderly one, that these people won't be able to get one. … They make it sound like these people are too stupid to get one.”
If the Legislature offered a hundred-dollar bill for getting a voter ID card, it continued, “you would see how fast they got voter ID cards with their picture. It would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon.”
Clemmons acknowledged in testimony that he responded “Amen” to the email sent to him during a 2009 legislative fight on his bill, and thanked the writer for supporting it. That proposal failed. A similar one passed last year.
Democrats have long argued the law is unnecessary and disenfranchises voters who lack driver's licenses – who are disproportionately poor minorities, the elderly and disabled. Republicans who control the Legislature contend it's about preventing fraud and instilling confidence in the election system. They point to provisions that provide ways for voters to get a free photo ID.
Clemmons said he regrets giving the hasty and inconsiderate response to a constituent he doesn't know. He said the email reflects only the sender's mindset, not his.
“What I thought at the time was, `This is someone I don't want to engage in discussion. I'm going to move on.’ I wish I'd used a different word,” he said Thursday.
But he's adamant it has nothing to do with his push for the law.
“This is a voter-friendly bill that will empower every voter to not only cast a ballot but with greater confidence that their vote will count,” Clemmons said.
The Justice Department decided last December that the law violates Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aims to protect minority voters. South Carolina's voter photo ID law was subject to approval from the Justice Department because of its past history of racial discrimination.
It was the first voting law to be refused federal clearance in nearly 20 years.
Randolph said the email confirms the state is still stuck in the past.
“It's part of a confirmation process,” he said. “People are in denial in this state when it comes to how good people are and how much progress we've made. There has been progress, but it's minuscule.”
He noted that Tuesday marked the 55th anniversary of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a South Carolina Democrat, launching his record-holding, 24-hour filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
“That's what this bill is about,” Randolph said. “We haven't changed a whole lot.”
He argued the judges should view the email's response as GOP legislators' acceptance and confirmation of such beliefs.
Clemmons pointed to the 2010 elections of Gov. Nikki Haley, the state's first female and minority governor, and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott – the state's first black Republican since Reconstruction – as proof of the state's progress. Clemmons served as Scott's Horry County campaign chairman.
Two Democrats who oppose the state’s voter ID law said racism is not in Clemmons’ nature.
Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro, no stranger to a floor fight with Clemmons, called the email unfortunate but said Clemmons is “a genuinely nice guy.”
State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who worked under Martin Luther King Jr., said Clemmons has aided his efforts to appoint African-American judges and isn’t a bigot.
“Clemmons is not that type of person. He is a good guy,” Ford said.
He said he's offended by the Justice Department's argument that South Carolina remains racist and can't be trusted with the voter ID law.
“We have moved so far in South Carolina over the past decades. South Carolina used to be a bad place in terms of racism. We are not in that place today,” he said, while acknowledging the email shows racist attitudes still exist.
“You can find those attitudes in varying degrees no matter where you go in this country,” he said. “South Carolina shouldn't be judged on the sins of their fathers, but who they are today. South Carolina is a different state than what it was when the Voting Rights Act was passed.”
The (Charleston) Post and Courier contributed to this report.