Lost in Carolina
Party hijinks.


Michael Graham

Regardless of who wins in South Carolina on Tuesday–and it’s going to be John Edwards, by the way–the big loser is going to be the South Carolina Democratic party.

For nearly a year, I’ve been asking Democratic candidates why they are holding a “key, early primary,” as they keep calling it, in a state where the local party is on life support, they haven’t had a significant statewide Democratic primary in a decade, and they have no hope of beating President Bush in November.

What–Utah was already booked up that week?

Now the inexperience of the state party is about to hurt the Democrats big time, due to the insistence of the state party that every participant in the primary sign a “loyalty oath” to the Democratic party. No independent, nonpartisan, or Republican voter will be allowed to vote until after they affirm in writing that “I consider myself to be a Democrat.”

The reaction from the electorate who, like me, knew nothing of this requirement, has been swift and negative: “Dumb,” read the first line of the Columbia, S.C. State’s coverage. Some voters who planned to vote have told reporters they will no longer show up, and at least one Republican activist is planning to challenge the Democrats by refusing to sign the pledge and demanding to vote, guaranteeing negative national press on the S.C. Democrats’ day of glory.

And the Democrats should be embarrassed. The Republicans hold their primary in South Carolina every four years without this requirement. Worse, the South Carolina Democrats are notorious for accusations that the GOP is “trying to suppress black turnout” if a Republican poll watcher so much as asks to look at a single voter registration card.

Now the Democrats are asking black voters, many of whom remember the days of poll taxes and literacy tests, to sign a public pledge to the party in order to receive permission to exercise their franchise. If this were the GOP, the screams of Al Sharpton would be heard all the way in Crawford, Texas.

There’s also a real question as to whether or not the loyalty oath is legal. South Carolina Code 7-11-20 covers primaries and what are called “advisory” elections–non-binding referenda. For years, the presidential primaries were essentially overlooked by state law and treated as advisory. But the law has since been modified and if the Democrat’s primary really is a primary and not merely an advisory ballot, the loyalty-oath requirement violates South Carolina state law. It’s also hard to see how it would survive a federal Voting Rights Act challenge in a state like South Carolina.

The loyalty oath will also have an impact on the election. John Edwards is clearly the favorite, and the higher the turnout among moderate and independent voters, the better he will do. But if they stay home and leave the field to the more hard-core Democratic activists, John Kerry’s percentage of the vote will rise. And then there’s the question of the loyalty oath’s effect on black turnout. Black voters in South Carolina are lifelong Democrats and the party’s most loyal voters, but they may not be comfortable putting that in writing.

But the real question is, “What the heck are the Democrats thinking?” Not only are they casting a shadow over the legitimacy of their own election, but they’re also discouraging moderate, swing voters–the very voters they hoped to reach with this primary–from participating. Instead of energizing the party and adding new members, they’re very publicly telling South Carolinians that the Democratic party is a “members only ” organization. So why are they doing it?

One theory that’s moving through South Carolina is that the interests of the party are divided. Local Democrats who have to run for reelection in November are desperate to see John Edwards at the top of the ticket. But party loyalists focused on beating Bush want South Carolina to go for Kerry, which would all but end the primary season on the spot.

That may explain why Rep. Clyburn made the surprise, last-minute decision to endorse Kerry, even after his key aide, Ike Williams, had joined the Edwards campaign. The conspiracy minded could also view the loyalty-oath decision as an attempt to keep Edwards’s supporters at home, too. But those of us familiar with the workings of the state Democratic party are confident it’s merely the latest example of their well-earned reputation for incompetence.

Radio-talk-host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia. He is an NRO contributor.