A Southern town rebels ... against ballot box

Huger, S.C., battles a legacy of racist, one-party politics that keeps turnout among lowest in US.

Margaret "Mickey" Carr mans the wooden counter at the roadside grocery in this backwoods Southern town, selling candy and fried pigskins, Coca-Cola in old green bottles and pickled eggs.

With a 12-gauge shotgun in the corner and baseball bat next to the sink, Ms. Carr doesn't shy from much of anything, including double-barreled opinions.

She dismisses the recent flap over the Confederate flag: "It's a battle flag; it doesn't have anything to do with slavery." Her solution for school discipline? "Paddlin'." As for President Clinton: "He should have been thrown out of office - no questions asked."

But Carr is equally adamant that politicians - and, by extension, voting - are irrelevant to her life.

"Politics and me, we just don't mix," says Carr, who has no plans to register to vote. She allows that some day a candidate might impress her. "But until then, I'm not voting," she says, folding her arms across her chest. "No way."

Here in Huger (pronounced "hew-gee"), a town nestled among the swamps and pine forests of South Carolina's coastal plain, the nonvoting culture seems as embedded as the sprawling, centuries-old plantations that still define the landscape.

The rural outpost lies in Berkeley County, one of the lowest-turnout counties in a state that has for generations ranked at or near the bottom of voter participation nationwide.

Huger illustrates how political participation in South Carolina - and indeed, throughout the South as a whole - still suffers from a long legacy of racist, one-party rule, when poll taxes and Jim Crow laws shut out blacks and left many whites complacent. The majority of Southern states today still have lower turnout rates than their Northern counterparts.

Low education and income levels underpin the apathy in Berkeley County. Together, these various forces have fueled both a deep distaste for politics and a "what's the use?" attitude among many residents here.

"South Carolina has a tradition of nobody voting," says Armand Derfner, a Charleston attorney who has led successful lawsuits compelling the state to increase voter-registration sites.

"A lot of it is left over from the whole plantation mentality," says state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the first black woman to serve as Democratic minority leader in the House. "[People here say] what difference does it make if I vote? That's other folks' business.

"They just go with the flow," she says, reciting a local saw: "Just shovelin' coal, Boss, just shovelin' coal."

Across the South, low voter participation strongly correlates with a history of slavery, says Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam. "The more virulent the system of slavery then [in the early to mid-1800s], the less civic the state today," Mr. Putnam writes in his book "Bowling Alone."

In one 1930s general election, a minuscule 2 percent of eligible South Carolina voters turned out - a national record. As recently as the 1992 presidential election, only 45 percent of South Carolinians voted. Here in Berkeley County, the turnout was even lower, at 42 percent. That year, the state, rarely far from the bottom, ranked 49th in the nation.

The Palmetto State has made some headway in recent decades, but progress has been erratic. As it was forced to dismantle overt racial barriers to voting, its rural-based Democratic oligarchy gave way to two-party competition when whites flocked to the Republican camp. That competition has helped spur higher registration and turnout, albeit sporadically. Once in a while, elections can turn lively and draw people to the polls, especially when hot issues like the Confederate flag or high-visibility jobs such as county sheriff are at stake.

Daunting task

Yet as South Carolina struggles to break with its past and improve the rate of voter participation, the daunting size of the challenge becomes evident in poor, rural areas like Berkeley County.

Here, staunch nonvoters easily outnumber their civic-minded neighbors. White or black, young or middle-aged, citizens in dozens of interviews gave unique reasons for not voting. But they shared an overriding feeling of dissatisfaction with candidates and elected officials, and a lack of faith that politicians will solve their problems.

On a sunny, windswept beach on the shores of Berkeley County's Lake Moultrie, known for its catfish and striped bass, print-factory worker Teddy Stuart stretches out on a lounge chair and explains why he'll probably never vote.

Politicians "are just in it for themselves," he says cynically, rubbing tanning oil over a tattooed shoulder. "They make all these promises they can't keep."

Many residents feel the same way in Berkeley, a large, wooded county inland from Charleston that grew out of an 18th-century economy of trading posts, naval stores, and plantation farming. Today, the county has a working-class population that is three-quarters white. A high-school diploma suffices for 75 percent of adults; only 11 percent have college degrees, far below the national average. As recently as late 1996, fewer than half of its voting-age residents had bothered to register, and turnout through the 1990s hovered around one-third of those eligible voters.

Unplugged

Some nonvoters here are unplugged from much of public life.

Like Mr. Stuart, whose appetite for news is limited to the weather report, Sheila D. is a fairly disengaged citizen. A widowed mother, she doesn't follow current events or attend church or other social groups. As for voting: "It's really not convenient. The lines are long," she says, taking orders for chili cheese dogs at her beachside concession stand.

Yet others who reject voting are involved citizens. Wearing a terrycloth robe and white-and-gold New Orleans Saints cap, Sandra Shirley fixes a picnic at Lion's Beach for her two young boys. An at-home mom, she watches the "Today Show" each morning and reads the newspaper. She also regularly volunteers in her boys' school, cutting out arts and crafts projects, handing out papers, and maintaining order in the classroom.

"I'm very into what's going on," says Mrs. Shirley. "I'm worried about the kids' school and the roads." But she refuses to entrust such matters to politicians. "Most politicians really disgust me with their dirty tactics," says Shirley, a lifelong nonvoter. "I'm 35 years old, and I haven't found a politician yet who interests me."

There is, however, a certain sense of community in Huger, a tradition-bound place where hunt clubs still hold "crab cracks" and raffles. Whitewashed, one-room churches stand in clearings at nearly every crossroads. And touring preachers hold forth under canvas awnings at sweltering, open-air tent revivals.

Yet politics traditionally has not been a part of the community ethic. When asked about voting, many Huger residents just shrug - a gesture that bespeaks both a disgust for politics and a sense of its irrelevance.

Even some older voters - traditionally the most reliable segment of turnout - are turning away. Postal Smalls, a retired longshoreman, now works just outside Huger as a caretaker at the stately Middleburg Plantation, a17th-century mansion at the end of a long drive lined by giant oaks draped in Spanish moss.

A longtime voter, churchgoer, and father of eight, Mr. Smalls speaks enthusiastically about presidents from Franklin Roos-evelt to John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. But disillusionment with local politicians has crept in, leaving Smalls unsure whether he'll vote next time. "[Politicians] they'll turn their back on you. They'll promise you gold, and give you brass," he says.

South Carolina's voting picture is not uniformly bleak. In recent decades, the state has seen bursts of political participation, although sustained gains have proven elusive. Ironically, many of these changes have been sparked by the same racial tensions that long suppressed turnout.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act and end of poll taxes led to a dramatic reentry of black voters into the political process in South Carolina, where one-third of the population is minority. Presidential-election turnout shot up from 30 percent of the voting-age population in 1960 to nearly 47 percent in 1968.

Black voters

Retired painter Isaac Vanish sits on an overturned paint tub in his peanut and vegetable garden in Moncks Corner, recalling how he fought for the right to vote in the 1960s. "The black man had no voice here," Mr. Vanish says of the old county seat, named after a trader who allegedly used a branding iron to mark his slaves. Local officials used to throw blacks' ballots in the trash, he says.

Since then, Vanish says he has never missed an election. "All of them are just as important, as I see it," he says, tinkering with his tilling machine. "I go Democrat," he adds, "because Republicans will put you back in slavery time - to put it short and sweet."

The influx of blacks to polling booths jarred the state's exclusive, "good-ol'-boy" Democratic establishment and spurred the revival of a two-party system. In the 1980s, the Republican Party was enjoying a resurgence in South Carolina with the support of mainly white Christian conservatives, an influx of retirees, and rural working-class whites who felt equal rights had gone too far.

Reggie Thames, a minister in Macedonia and a Christian Coalition member, helped organize voting precincts when Republicans faced a manpower shortage.

"The past 10 years is the first time we've really had a choice," because Democrats no longer run unopposed, he says. "The competition does help," says Mr. Thames, a regular voter.

But since the 1960s jump, voter turnout in South Carolina has stagnated at about 40 percent, partly because younger blacks failed to build on the gains made by their elders. "You now have groups, particularly young people of color, who don't see the value of voting," says Cobb-Hunter, the state legislator, who represents nearby Orangeburg County.

In recent years, Democrats seeking a comeback have made a major push to register and recruit black voters.

In 1996, South Carolina became one of the last states to implement the federal "motor voter" law to open up new venues for registration after courts forced the state's Republican leadership to comply. Voter registration has increased substantially from 58 percent of the voting-age population in 1992 to more than 70 percent in 1998, with blacks, especially, registering in greater numbers.

"If there's a success story in the state, it's increased registration ... driven by politics," says Moore.

Yet turnout has so far failed to keep pace. From 1992 to 1996, the number of actual voters fell slightly.

Hope for a new culture of civic responsibility in South Carolina lies with people like 20-something Tamiko Jones, a Moncks Corner resident who has voted in every election since she turned 18. "I like to know where I'm spending my tax money," she says.

PART 1 — OCT. 3 Why America is in danger of having the lowest turnout among the world's major democracies.

PART 2 — OCT. 4 Why voters still flock to the polls in Duluth, Minn.

PART 3 — TODAY A South Carolina county with one of the worst turnout rates in the US.

PART 4 — OCT. 6 A generation that doesn't vote - and what's being done to change their minds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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