Voting rights did not come easily or quickly to women or to African Americans in the 1950s and 60s. It was not peaceful or safe to seek this democratic right. Murder and mayhem followed African Americans demanding the franchise, until finally the violence of Selma prompted the federal government to intervene with the Voting Right Act.
But if we jump forward from 1966 to 2013, we find that some things haven’t changed in Swansea or Burnettown, South Carolina. During the latest election, voters shared some of the same problems with shifting roads somehow moving people out of the city limits and longtime voters’ names suddenly dropping off the list of voters. They also shared the same pat answer from each county’s election office: “The list of voters isn’t always right.”
Swansea officials claimed that the town limits had “expanded,” or something like that – no one was sure what it meant. Still, it’s hard to explain to a voter who had been living in almost the center of town that he or she was no longer a resident. According to the Lexington County Election Commission, the Commission and the Lexington County Register of Deeds Office don’t share information; the result was that voters in both towns didn’t get to vote.
Just how many people didn’t get a vote is a good question.
While the Aiken County Election Commission is waiting for poll workers to step up and admit to intimidating voters or trying to get them to vote for a particular candidate, the Lexington County Election Commission has turned a blind eye to citizens’ complaints and even the admission by one of its own commissioners who was on site and saw violations firsthand.
How can violations of almost every election law and every rule governing poll managers not matter to an election commission? Is it because Swansea has only approximately 535 voters compared with the voter recounts of Lexington and other larger cities? Are Swansea’s complaints of disenfranchised voters just a minor irritant?
Really, does the Aiken County Election Commission think someone is going to admit to wrongdoing and face fines and possible jail time? Could the voters of Burnettown be right when they describe who and what happened on Nov. 5?
Unlike Burnettown, Swansea was drowning in misinformation, threats, bribery and the fear of retaliation. American citizens should not have to endure this in 2013. They should not have to give their names to someone standing outside a polling place. Fear and confusion followed both sides right up and into the polling place.
Dean Crepes, director of the Auxiliary Administration Building in Lexington, claims he is the one who trains poll managers. He spoke earlier about the training he gives his poll managers, especially this year with the roll out of voter identification. He was proud they all had to pass an exam before he would appoint them as poll managers. Sadly, his training was not obvious in Swansea. What was obvious to even a casual observer was that there was chaos in Swansea’s polling place.
Three women acted as two poll managers for one precinct. The women were swapping seats, and each was acting as a manager at the polling table while taking turns caring for a small 5-month-old baby. The babysitting and the exchange of places went on all day until the polls closed. Poll managers or acting poll managers voted for people without asking the candidate of choice and allowed voting without any identification. Imagine a small room with five so-called poll managers, the police chief, poll watchers, voters and candidates, all jammed in by not-so-private voting booths, and a 5-month-old baby. Chaos may be a kind word. Violation is another word.
Swansea candidate Kevin Hackett’s petition for a new untainted election was recently denied. The Election Commission turned him down on the grounds that he had not gathered, in less than a day, 30 witnesses willing to swear they would have voted for him. Alone at a table surrounded by commissioners, holding signed statements by credible witnesses to violations of voters rights, with eye witnesses (including one election commissioner) to the multiple violations, Mr. Hackett found that none of that mattered. Only one question was important, the commission said, and it was just this: Could he prove right now that he had 30 votes, and who and where were they? The entire process to dismiss took less than 10 minutes.
While witnesses were still arriving, the head of the commission came forward and shook Hackett’s hand and said he hoped it was understood only those 30 votes mattered. Hackett did not understand. No one understood, even the experienced past and present chairmen of the Lexington Democratic Party did not understand. Kevin Hackett and his wife made a decision; they would fight the injustice for themselves and for others in Swansea that could not fight. They would take this to a higher court.
Kevin Hackett is going to a higher commission or court than the Lexington County Commission. His faith is that someone cares enough to hear all the facts before they decide if voters and candidates were denied their rights. The long trek through the maze of commissions and courts has to be daunting to these small-town everyday people. The Hacketts are fighting without the benefit of expensive lawyers, without the ability to tap the town’s funds, fumbling along the way, facing officials who until this week had never read names like Burnettown and Swansea.
Whether he succeeds is anybody’s guess. The question facing the citizens of Swansea is plain enough: Is this even the United States?
Alberta Wasden is a Nerve Citizen Reporter who lives in Wagener.