Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s Record on Voting Rights

Nikki Haley standing before a podium that says "Nikki Haley for President" surrounded by cut out images of her signature, bill text of Act 17, a South Carolina drivers license and other text cutouts.

On Feb. 14, 2023, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) announced her run for the Republican nomination for president. Haley served as governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017 until she was appointed by former President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

A day after her February announcement, presidential hopeful Haley delivered a speech kicking off her campaign. “In the America I see, everyone has full confidence in our elections,” Haley said. “Voter ID will be the law of the land — just like we did in South Carolina.” Leaning on her experience as a state executive, Haley highlighted a voting policy enacted under her watch. Unfortunately, that policy has a less than stellar history.

Haley was an architect of a strict voting law requiring photo ID in South Carolina. It was initially deemed too discriminatory to go into effect.

Before Shelby County v. Holder was decided in 2013, South Carolina was one of nine states that were required to obtain federal approval before enacting new election laws. Due to South Carolina’s history of discriminating against Black voters, it was subject to this preclearance as part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

On May 18, 2011, just a few months after assuming the office, Haley signed a law requiring voters to present one of five forms of photo identification in order to vote. But, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) blocked the law from going into effect, citing the difference in the rate of minority registered voters and white registered voters who lack identification issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. “The absolute number of minority citizens whose exercise of the franchise could be adversely affected by the proposed requirements runs into the tens of thousands,” wrote then-Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez.

South Carolina officials cited voter fraud as justification for enacting the new ID restrictions. However, Perez noted that the “state’s submission did not include any evidence or instance of either in-person voter impersonation or any other type of fraud that is not already addressed by the state’s existing voter identification requirement.” The end of the DOJ letter admonished state officials for running out the clock: On the 55th day of a 60-day review period, the state forwarded data that conflicted with previously offered data.

According to the New York Times, this was the first time since 1994 that the DOJ blocked a voter ID law under its VRA preclearance powers.

Haley rebuffed the DOJ’s decision, saying that the administration of former President Barack Obama was “bullying” her state. “It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th Amendment rights,” she responded at the time. 

Haley also chose to instigate a costly lawsuit defending the law. Ultimately, a panel of federal judges upheld the law but compelled the state to accept almost all affidavits for people who lack proper identification; those voters must sign a statement noting that they had a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID. The law went into effect in 2013.

In the years since its enactment, voting rights advocates argued that conflicting messaging from state officials caused confusion among voters, with a potentially negative impact on turnout. Currently, South Carolina is one of 19 states with a photo ID law in effect. Photo ID laws to vote are the most restrictive version of voter identification rules, requiring more documentation than is necessary to prove one’s identity at the polls.

Haley opposed federal legislation that aimed to improve and standardize voting access.

While Haley began her presidential campaign with a call for a nation-wide voting policy, she opposed federal voting rights legislation that moved through Congress before ultimately stalling in the U.S. Senate in January 2022. 

A press release from Stand for America, an advocacy group founded by Haley, critiqued the legislation for stripping power from states. “Liberals have given us the perfect example of what not to do. Their deceptively named ‘For the People Act’ would allow the federal government to dictate how states conduct elections, like mandating mail-in and early voting. This is unconstitutional and unwise,” the release said. 

Instead, Haley supported the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Commission on Election Integrity. The commission released a report in April 2022 that endorsed photo ID laws, signature matching procedures, bans on private funding in election administration and ID requirements for absentee voting. The report included other high-level descriptions of different voting practices without making any strong commitments.

Haley has a complicated relationship with Trump, but supported a myriad of election deniers in 2022.

Haley was an early critic of Trump but in November 2016, he nominated Haley to the ambassadorship. Haley became a high-ranking member of the Trump administration, and now is one of his leading rivals in the 2024 race to the White House.

ANALYSIS Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Record on Voting Rights

On Jan. 7, 2021, one day after an attack on the U.S. Capitol aimed to stop ceremonial electoral proceedings, Haley said that Trump “was badly wrong with his words yesterday. And it wasn’t just his words. His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published a month after Jan. 6, Haley blamed the media for creating a false dichotomy between supporting and rejecting Trump. However, she did largely eschew the “Big Lie” of a stolen 2020 election and criticized Trump.

Despite this, Haley embraced candidates in 2022 who amplified the false claims about stolen elections and other election-related conspiracy theories. She endorsed or campaigned on behalf of Hershel Walker in Georgia, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and more.

For Haley’s record on democracy, actions speak louder than words.