Early voting bills face major hurdle in SC Legislature

Discord over how early could thwart 7 bills pushing idea

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 17, 2013 

  • Voting early in S.C. South Carolina does not have early voting. But patterns in absentee voting, which many South Carolinians use to vote early, suggest early voting would favor Democratic candidates. A list of counties that had the highest and lowest percentages of absentee voting, and who they voted for in November’s presidential election. Most absentee ballots

    All of the counties listed went for Democratic President Barack Obama

    McCormick – 42 percent absentee

    Allendale – 41 percent

    Sumter – 34 percent

    Marlboro – 33 percent

    Clarendon – 32 percent

    Chester – 32 percent

    Fewest absentee voters

    All of the counties listed went for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    Anderson – 14 percent absentee

    Laurens – 14 percent

    Saluda – 13 percent

    Union – 13 percent

    Pickens – 12 percent

    Greenville – 11 percent

    SOURCE: S.C. Election Commission

— Democrats and Republicans both say they want early voting in South Carolina, but the idea – advocated in seven bills before the Legislature – could be doomed.


Disagreement over how long before an election voters should be allowed to vote.

South Carolina does not now have early voting. Instead, it has absentee voting, which allows people to vote for up to 30 days before an election if they meet one of 18 qualifications laid out in state law to vote absentee, such as being 65 or older. However, 31 other states have early voting, where voters can vote for days before election day for any reason.

Democrats tend to favor early voting, while Republicans tend to oppose it, and South Carolina’s absentee voting totals show why: More Democrats vote absentee.

Twenty percent of South Carolina voters voted absentee last year. Of the 10 South Carolina counties that had the highest percentage of absentee voting in 2012, eight went for Democratic President Barack Obama. The 10 counties that had the lowest percentage of absentee voting all voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“The general mindset is Democrats use early voting for organization,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, chairman of the House Judiciary Election Laws Subcommittee. “Republicans use early voting for convenience.”

But Clemmons said he thinks voters are exploiting the absentee voting law, “telling a fib in order to vote prior to the election.” Clemmons has sponsored a bill – a public hearing is set for next week – that would open the polls 10 days before an election for early voting.

But Clemmons’ bill also would tighten the rules for absentee voting, eliminating in-person absentee voting and raising the age requirement to automatically qualify to vote absentee to 72 from 65. His bill also would eliminate straight-party ticket voting, which also tends to favor Democrats at the polls since more S.C. Democrats vote straight-party tickets than Republicans.

But those ideas turn off Democratic legislators.

“Instead of the 30-day period in which people have a chance to vote now, with those various excuses, (Clemmons) has narrowed that window drastically,” said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, a member of the House Judiciary election laws subcommittee. “Although we want early voting, we’re not going to settle.”

That means early voting could fail again.

The state House of Representatives passed an election bill in 2011 that included early voting, but the Senate removed that provision. This year, state senators have filed at least three bills to permit early voting.

“I expect the Senate will pass an early-voting bill this session,” said state Sen. Larry Marin, R-Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will vet any early-voting bill. “We need to do it this year because next year will be the election year.”

But Martin, too, favors a narrow window for early voting as opposed to the 30-day window, which exists now for absentee voting, that Democrats want.

Martin opposes 30 days.

“You are doing the process a disservice by voting 30 days before the election because things happen in the last few weeks of an election that may determine how you would vote,” Martin said. “Once you cast that vote, you can’t call it back.”

But state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, says early voting is about making it easier for people to vote.

‘Make voting easier’

Jackson should know. As chairman of the Richland County legislative delegation, Jackson found himself caught up recently in the county’s November election debacle. Election officials did not deploy enough voting machines, resulting in lines that caused some people to wait for up to seven hours before they could vote. Many frustrated voters left without voting.

If people could have voted earlier, Jackson said those lines would not have been as long.

“I just heard, throughout this whole process, we ought to make voting easier, not harder,” Jackson said. “There is no better way to do it than to have early voting.”

But Jackson will not vote for the House Republican bill, adding he suspects some GOP lawmakers, who don’t really want early voting, are trying to “put poison pills” in the bill so it will fail.

Said fellow Democrat Sellers, “I’m not too optimistic.”

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