Examining The Subtle Art of Voter Suppression by South Carolina’s Democratic Party, Past and Present: Continuing the Fight for the Vote-Essay 1.
Imagine that the South Carolina Elections Commission decided that voting could only take place by mail-in ballot. Now, let’s imagine that less than 1% of registered voters were provided a ballot. Would that be legal? One doesn’t need a law degree to answer the question. Excluding 99% of registered voters would clearly be an illegal action that meets the very definition of voter suppression. If the state Elections Commission were to commit such a crime, articles would be written and there would be an outcry among the voting public.
Yet, the Richland County Democratic Party used the distraction of the Coronavirus pandemic to commit voter suppression of historic proportions and it nearly went unnoticed. This was not the first time that disenfranchisement has been allowed to thrive in the Richland County Democratic Party but I made the decision to take a stand in the hope that this may be the last time it happens.
As some of you may know, I recently filed a lawsuit against the Democratic Parties of Richland County and South Carolina. I did so as an African American Democrat and as a South Carolina registered voter. I also took this action because I have an obligation as a black man to always speak truth to power. No matter how great the power or how hurtful the truth – without fear or favor.
It has been said that history repeats itself. While some may debate how true that may or may not be, when it comes to the Richland County Democratic Party, there has certainly been a long history of voter disenfranchisement. It is a history that spans decades and warrants further exploration. So, in the coming weeks, we’ll revisit several landmark cases when Civil Rights icons like Thurgood Marshall and Fannie Lou Hammer — leaders who tirelessly marched forward to advance voting rights for African American voters.
But first, a look at the present.
On April 18, 2020, the Richland County Democratic Party acted illegally in order to maintain power by denying large swaths of black voters the right to participate in the election of County officers of their choosing. It was a tactic with roots that reach as far back as Jim Crow, a strategy to disenfranchise black voters who are the Democratic electoral majority in both Richland County and the State of South Carolina; and it was a scheme to silence those who would speak out against such racist tactics.
When the decision was made to move to an online convention, the Richland County Democratic Party had full knowledge that there are 150 precincts in Richland County with a total of 265,897 registered voters. Out of the total number of registered voters, 143,632 are non-white. Numerically that equates to black. Despite knowing this data, the party mailed out just 416 ballots. A fraction of potential voters. The justification for this decision was that ballots were sent to persons who attended the recent precinct meetings and were elected as delegates at that time. However, the problem stems from the fact that one does not have to be a delegate to run for or vote in party elections which are required by law to be held at county conventions. The party is obligated to reach out to all registered voters in Richland County. It is unconscionable and illegal to issue just 416 ballots when the pool of potential voters is more than a quarter of a million, particularly when you have full knowledge that over half of those voters are minorities.
All registered voters who reside in Richland County are eligible to vote for county officers and to run for county office in the appropriate categories. We will not be silent.
The great disenfranchisement scheme of 2020 is only the latest infraction from the Richland County Democratic Party. In 1944, South Carolina’s Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) was founded by John Henry McCray. This would be twenty years before Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenged the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to recognize and seat its Freedom Delegation on the ground that Mississippi’s Democratic Party delegation was illegitimate and undemocratic because it excluded black people from participation.
Prior to 1944, all white primaries excluded African Americans from voting in South Carolina primaries and in primary election in all of the former Confederate States. Legally, that changed on April 3, 1944, when the Supreme Court of the United States held that white primaries were illegal in a case entitled Smith v. Allwright, 321 US 349 (1944).
On April 4, 1944, one day after the Supreme court decision in Smith v. Allwright, then South Carolina Governor Olin D. Johnston convened a Special Session of the all white General Assembly. At that time in history, the Democratic Party controlled state politics in South Carolina and so, in effect, the primary was controlled by the South Carolina Democratic Party. The Special Session, led by Democrats, ran from April 4 until April 20th. Upon the conclusion of that Special Session, the South Carolina Democratic Party was converted into a private club so that it could exclude African Americans from the primaries and circumvent the Supreme Court decision in Smith v Allwright. It was then that John Henry McCray and others organized the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).
The PDP held its first convention in Columbia on May 24, 1944. It had over 172 delegates from 39 counties and elected 18 delegates and two alternates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. The delegation was not seated. In 1948, they made a second challenge and were again rebuffed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The PDP went toe-to-toe with the Richland County Democratic Party, the South Carolina Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee in a battle for equality. They challenged the party’s whites only policy and laid the groundwork for the MFDP which would follow in it’s footsteps twenty years later. were unsuccessful but the PDP was no doubt an inspiration for the MFDP and now more than 75 years later it is an inspiration to the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina. We are true Democrats as they were.
We will not be silenced as they could not. We will not bow down as they did not. We will not be denied the vote.