S.C. poll procedures in primaries under scrutiny

U.S. lawyers want to know if voting rights were blocked


ATLANTA -- Alerted to the closing of polling places in black neighborhoods during South Carolina's last Republican presidential primary, the Justice Department has begun asking questions about the coming Democratic and GOP primaries, political officials around the state said yesterday.

The inquiry raises the possibility that the primaries could be challenged by the government under the Voting Rights Act.

If the government finds that the poll closings violate the voting rights of blacks, the Republican Party -- whose Feb. 19 primary is critical to the presidential hopes of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- might have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to open every polling place in South Carolina, which was not done in previous primaries.

The Democrats could also then have to cancel their primary on March 9 and move to a caucus system, said the party's state chairman, Richard A. Harpootlian, because his party, like the Republicans, was not planning to open every polling place in the state.

Neither party informed the Justice Department of its plans to deviate from the procedures used in the general election, as they are required to do under the Voting Rights Act.

The inquiry began after a complaint to the Justice Department last week that was instigated by Democrats. Both parties realized that the department had never been informed that the parties picked their own polling places in the primaries.

The Justice Department would not comment on the issue yesterday, but several people who had been called by the department's lawyers said they had been asked about the mechanics of the primaries and about whether the voting methods had been cleared with the department.

A. Lee Parks, an Atlanta lawyer who drafted the original complaint, said he had been told that the department was conducting an expedited inquiry with the aim of getting the matter resolved before Feb. 19.

As a result, the Republican state chairman, Henry McMaster, issued an appeal yesterday for more volunteers to work at polling places on Feb. 19 in an effort to show the Justice Department that the primary would be conducted fairly.

The party has enough volunteers to open more than 1,000 polling places, he said, but not enough for each precinct.

Opening polling places in each precinct would cost the party more than $500,000, he said. It has budgeted $150,000.

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