BEAUFORT, S.C. (CN) - With the presidential election days away, a change to the ballot in this rural community on South Carolina's coast threatens to disenfranchise illiterate voters, according to a federal lawsuit. The plaintiffs' attorney says the county registrar eliminated the traditional sequential numbering of candidates on the ballot, which could confuse voters who understand numbers but can't read, and she did it without approval from the Justice Department.
Attorney Charles Dulaney, representing plaintiffs Randy Bates and Joan Bryan, told Courthouse News Service there are two problems with a decision to end a longstanding practice of sequential candidate numbering on Beaufort County's ballot.
"First, they changed the ballot without the change being cleared with the U.S. Justice Department, a violation of Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act," he said. "Second, they've made a change that could be a barrier to potential voters who understand numbers, but otherwise can't read."
Agnes Garvin, Beaufort County's Registration and Elections Director, changed the local ballot to conform to with a sample ballot sent out by the State Election Commission shortly before primaries for state and local offices were held in June.
Dulaney said the Beaufort Election Commission affirmed that decision last week, but he says the county still is in violation of the Act.
Section 5 freezes election practices or procedures until the new procedures have been subjected to review by the U.S. Attorney General's office or have been subject of a federal lawsuit.
Under Section 5, any change with respect to voting in a covered jurisdiction, or any political subunit within it, cannot be enforced unless and until the jurisdiction obtains the requisite determination.
This requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group.
Dulaney said the elimination of sequential candidate numbering will mean that voters will either need assistance in the voting booth or will have to come up with an alternate means of identifying their preferred candidate before traveling to their polling place.
"This could lead to embarrassment that might discourage some to vote," he said. "At the very least it would void their right to keep their preference to themselves."
Dulaney said he sued for expedience's sake, and that he's still securing affidavits from plaintiffs and other affected voters, a necessary step toward a request for a temporary restraining order.
Garvin declined to comment on the suit, saying in an e-mail to the Courthouse News Service that she had not yet received formal notice of it.
However, she said that it's too late to include sequential candidate numbering on the ballot for the Nov. 4 presidential election.
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