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A lawsuit accuses the South Carolina GOP of excluding blacks from the vote.

Published February 11, 2000 9:09AM (EST)

With John McCain surging in South Carolina, the state's Republican Party has been desperately trying to fold up its famous big tent. Party officials admit they have a plan to keep closed nearly one-fourth of the state's polling places, some 500 of a total 1,778 ballot boxes, for the primary next Saturday. Most of them are in Democratic and black majority areas -- as it happens, where McCain's edge resides.

"In one part of South Carolina, they've practically shut down an entire county," said Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Democratic legislator from Columbia. "Williamburg County -- it just happens to be majority black."

As a result, Rutherford has filed a lawsuit, challenging the practice as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The two sides are scheduled for a hearing before a three-judge federal panel Monday, five days before the primary Feb. 19. In the meantime, the Republicans have taken their plan before the Justice Department to get a "pre-clearance" opinion, which may pre-empt any judicial consideration.

"The Republicans have come up with a new plan today," Rutherford said on the telephone Thursday night, explaining the latest maneuvering, "They announced they would shut down 24 percent of black precincts but in a conciliatory effort would also shut down 24 percent of white precincts." This negotiating position, he said, only exposes that the original plan was to shut down mostly black-majority districts. "That's why they offered that deal today," he said, "to make it look good. This is Jim Crow once again."

Republicans contend that closing down polls is practiced by both camps and that the lawsuit is nothing more than a nuisance filing meant to force the GOP into wasting its state-party money on staffing normally empty precincts. But it's more complicated than that. The ability to pick and choose which precincts to open is, in fact, a Jim Crow legacy that survives only in presidential primaries in South Carolina. No other state election or primary has this kind of establishment control over the act of voting itself.

And this year in particular, it seems critical. The usually tight control kept on the primary by party officials has gotten away from them. The primary is open, and since Democrats are not holding a primary this year, they are free to crossover and vote in the Republican race. And the primary is on a Saturday instead of the usual Tuesday workday. All these volatile elements have made it easier for McCain's surge to end in victory and, consequently, have made any standard political fix look like an extraordinary one.

In many ways, this is precisely what happened in New York. The old establishment system of wiring the process for the its hand-picked boy suddenly looked especially corrupt when the other contender ran on the charge that the old establishment system was wiring the process.

"But it is even more curious this year," said a highly placed figure in the state Democratic Party, referring to the blatant racial slant to the closings, "because they have an African-American candidate, Alan Keyes, running in their primary."

Rutherford also charges that there are other -- shall we say, "antique" -- tactics hidden in the Republican poll-closing plan. Even if one wanted to defend consolidating so many precincts, Rutherford said, "the party doesn't let voters go to the nearest polling place but only the one that the Republican Party decides you should go to." (Rutherford's suit draws upon "the data we gathered in the last two primary elections," he said.)

"For instance, some of the voting districts are large," he explained. "In my area, district 32 is extremely large. And the Republicans were instructing black voters to go to another black-majority district three districts away when there was a white-majority district right next door. You had to drive through two white-majority precincts to get there."

In the early part of the last century, a standard good-old-boy trick was to assign blacks voting stations that were a whole day's walk from their homes. There is a rich history here. South Carolina is one of the few states where the party maintains total control over the presidential primaries. The parties received full electoral power over their primaries during Reconstruction to keep blacks out of, back then, the Democratic primary. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that overt racist discrimination in the primaries was unconstitutional, the state's demagogues came up with a brilliant idea. They would disentangle the government from party affairs by repealing every single law touching upon the parties, thereby freeing them up to be racist again.

Addressing the legislature, Gov. Olin Johnston declared: "I know that the white Democrats in South Carolina will rally behind you in this matter of repealing all primary laws from the statute books." He urged this action "to guarantee white supremacy in our primaries" and "to safeguard the homes and happiness of our people." And so it was done.

The parties maintained ballot-box control over every single primary until 1992, when they ceded the power to administer primaries to a disinterested State Election Commission.

Every primary except one: the presidential primary.

It's one of the last vestiges of a peculiar history, the dead hand of Jim Crow, reaching up now to salvage George W. Bush's campaign from a maverick the big-money insiders can't control.

Given recent developments, Bush's backers have every reason to be afraid. There is a palpable momentum for McCain in South Carolina, and its sources are of grave concern to the party establishment. Big name Democrats are coming out in support of McCain. Sam Tenenbaum, who chaired just two years ago the inauguration of the sitting Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, and whose own wife works for Gore, admits to giving McCain $1,000.

In South Carolina, the state senate is Democratic and its president, John Drummond, has come out for McCain.

"I'm putting campaign signs in my front yard, I'm sending him campaign contributions, and I'm thrilled that South Carolina is catching fire," he told the press this week. Then the unaffiliated Reuben Greenberg came out for McCain, which may be the biggest blow. South Carolina doesn't boast many political celebrities of national stature, but certainly foremost among them is the Jewish African-American police chief in Charleston, who is, it is fair to say, fairly beloved for his stern law-and-order positions.

Meanwhile, the negative campaigning has grown excessive. In both camps, really, but some remarkably egregious tactics conducted by the Bush campaign have been flushed out, especially in the new political art form known as push polling. The practice involves posing as a pollster to ask phony questions loaded often with tendentious and typically false information ("would you support Candidate Blowhard if you learned that he supported gay adoption of orphans?). That's one thing. But yesterday, McCain produced a 14-year-old boy on his dais to testify that he'd receive a call from a pollster asking if he knew that John McCain was "a cheat, a liar and a fraud." Now, that's mud.

Consultants in South Carolina have estimated that a high voter turnout of 400,000 would give McCain the advantage. A turnout of 300,000 would give Bush the benefit he sorely needs. Negative polling historically drives down turnout, so it's not surprising that the establishment is doing everything it can to ensure that only hard-core Republican voters, whom it can trust to follow orders, get to the polls.

If the new tricks of push polling don't work, there's always the old ones: pinpoint McCain's potential strongholds and close down the polls.

By Jack Hitt

Jack Hitt is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and PRI's "This American Life."


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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.