South Carolina poll scandal

The GOP shut out voters in important black voting precincts Saturday. Was it a conspiracy against John McCain or just incompetence?

Published February 19, 2000 8:33PM (EST)

Campaign staffers for Arizona Sen. John McCain were
abuzz Saturday morning as information trickled in that 21 voting
precincts in Greenville, S.C., had been suddenly closed by representatives of the county GOP.

At least three of the voting locations were in predominantly
African-American neighborhoods, lending credence -- at least in McCain
staffers' minds -- to the conspiracy theory that forces favoring Texas
Gov. George W. Bush had conspired to shut down the polls to suppress the
turnout of individuals likely to vote for McCain. McCain has been lustily wooing
Democrats and independents for Saturday's GOP primary.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Henry McMaster said a lack of manpower caused the problem -- since the party relies on volunteers to staff the precincts.

The charge that Bush allies would so blatantly try to suppress voter
turnout -- which McCain and his staff were careful not to specifically
make -- was based on sheer speculation. Many political observers
have noted that the Bush campaign's barrage of "push polls" and vitriolic
TV and radio advertisements is at least partially an effort to
turn off voters -- which in theory is harmful to McCain because he tends to attract more self-disfranchised voters.

Reporters' interest was piqued when McCain staffers
said that Greenville County GOP Chairman Warren Mowry had endorsed
Bush, which Mowry denies. "I do not believe that as the chairman
of a county party involved in a contested primary I should be
anything but neutral," Mowry said Saturday afternoon in a phone

But at one closed precinct in Greenville, the county's neutrality
seemed questionable. If a voting location is moved, the state GOP is
required by law to either station a person at the site to
give directions to the alternate site or use "prominently displayed
written notice" of the new voting locale. At the voting precinct at Rocky Creek Baptist
Church, a "George W. Bush" sticker was attached to the cardboard sign
on which directions to the new locale were written.

Bryant Rhone looked at those
directions before heading to the new site. A
27-year-old registered Republican, Rhone said he would vote for McCain. "He's a military
man," said Rhone, an employee at defense contractor Lockheed who
served seven years in the military. "I liked Bush. And I became
disappointed. You know, the first place he decided to speak to was
Bob Jones University. That didn't seem right -- especially with the
racial tensions in South Carolina. I just don't think he was
sensitive to the black vote at all."

"The governor has said all along that he wants every precinct to be
open, and we believe them to be so," said Bush spokesman Ari
Fleischer when asked about the 21 precincts that are unquestionably,
indisputably closed.

"As you know, we don't have to open up all the precincts," said state
GOP Executive Director J. Sam Daniels. "In 1996, only 40 percent of
our locations opened up. This time, 80 percent are opened up." It's
true that "21 of the precincts had to be consolidated" with other
voting locales, Daniels said, and "only three of the 21 are
considered to be majority-black districts."

As with all of the dirt, roadblocks, bumps, hurdles and
pitfalls put in McCain's path in his race to win the South Carolina
primary, it is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to prove collusion with the Bush campaign in this incident. Saturday morning, McCain called for "a
complete and full investigation" into the matter. "Are there no
depths ...?" he started to ask, before letting his words trail off.

The Bush campaign hasn't lent itself much credence in its waging of
a bitter and mean-spirited campaign against McCain. Even if the Bush
campaign had absolutely zero to do with the negative push polls,
e-mails and literature attacking McCain's personal life and family,
Bush hasn't done anything to disavow them.

Long before the South Carolina GOP was accused of working against
McCain, it was accused of setting up hurdles for African-American
voters. The South Carolina Republican Party was named in a U.S.
District Court lawsuit by two African-American Democratic
state legislators, Todd Rutherford and James Pitts, who have taken
the state GOP to task for violating the Voting Rights Act by not
opening polling places in majority-black districts. For
example, in 1996 in Williamsburg County -- which is 80 percent
African-American -- the state GOP opened for business in only five
of 23 voting districts.

Last month, party chairman Henry McMaster told the Charleston Post and Courier, "We are attempting to open up every
precinct. There are some [that] because of a lack of manpower, we will not be
able to keep them open. We will have to consolidate them."

Pursuant to that legal challenge, U.S. District Court judges issued a
consent order Monday instructing the GOP to make its
"best efforts" to "utilize and open each of the available polling
places." If circumstances prohibited 100 percent utilization, the
consent order stated, the party was to take out an ad "in a newspaper
of general circulation" by Friday to inform voters of the alternate

Mowry and McMaster acknowledged that the ad they took out did not
appear in the Greenville News until Saturday, a violation of the
consent order.

"We had a lot of bad luck" in getting volunteers, Mowry said. "When
you are asking people to volunteer to give up a Saturday ... people think
about giving up a weekend, and that's just not a very attractive

Mowry said he was doing everything he could to ensure that
African-American voters were able to vote in the primary.
Speaking from a cell phone, he said, "I am personally sitting in a
majority-black precinct today" -- at the Church of the Redeemer.
Additionally, Mowry griped that he had slept for only one hour the
night before because he was hanging new precinct alerts "in a dozen
of those places last night and this morning."

McCain supporters wondered if Bush supporters would really close down precincts in violation of the law. Rep.
Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of McCain's supporters, said he was having his lawyer look into it.

"If it's true, then we're a better party than that," McCain said later
as he sat in the back of the "Straight Talk Express" with his
family on their way from Greenville to North Charleston, where his
post-primary celebration will be held. "It's surprising to hear of
stuff like this. Maybe I'm naive."

"John, look," said his wife, Cindy, pointing to three of their
children, sitting and playing nearby. "Whenever things get really
bad, look at the kids," she said. "They made hand puppets."

Meghan, 15, Jimmy, 11, and Bridget, 8, were playing with puppets
they'd created by drawing with magic markers on paper bags. Cindy
said she'd "taught it to them years ago on planes," using
air-sickness bags.

I suggested that making puppets out of air sickness bags wasn't a bad
metaphor for what the family might try to do in response to its experience in South Carolina, where the family has been viciously attacked by enemies of the candidate. Cindy smiled sadly.

McCain then phoned up the widow of a man who had died of a heart
attack he suffered before a McCain event in Hilton Head, S.C.

Later, in the spacious auditorium where reporters were filing their
stories and the sound technicians were blasting techno music in
preparation for McCain's speech Saturday night, few seemed confident
that McCain was going to have a good evening. One reporter noted a
concession stand's immense "CONCESSION" sign on the wall.

Kerry Lauerman contributed to this report.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.