In his inaugural address Monday, President Barack Obama pointedly noted that the nation’s journey “is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” One simple way to alleviate that problem is to allow citizens to vote early.
Thirty one states already have provisions to allow voters to cast ballots several days prior to Election Day, and South Carolina might join them if advocates can agree on a plan. With both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature favoring early voting, lawmakers should be able to find common ground.
Unfortunately, efforts could fail because both sides are looking for ways to gain a political advantage.
South Carolina currently does not have early voting, but it does have absentee voting, which allows people to vote in person or by mailing in a ballot for up to 30 days before an election. But to do so, they must meet one of 18 qualifications specified in state law, such as being 65 or older or planning to be out of town on business on Election Day.
The restrictions, however, are loosely enforced. Election officials concede that people routinely lie about the reasons they want to vote absentee so they can vote without having to wait in line on Election Day.
The remedy would be to allow early voting without having to provide an excuse. That could result in shorter lines on Election Day and prevent debacles such as the one that occurred in Richland County in November where voters had to wait for up to seven hours to vote because too few voting machines had been made available.
Early voting also would permit voters to tailor their schedules so they could cast a ballot without missing work or vote when transportation was available. For some, having that flexibility is not just a convenience, it can determine whether they have the chance to vote at all.
But lawmakers in both parties are aware of voting patterns. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote absentee, and the Democratic Party is more likely to use early voting as an organizing tool to get its voters to the polls.
So, early voting bills now being filed reflect that. Democrats want early voting for 30 days before an election, just like absentee voting now. Republicans want a 10-day early-voting window and new restrictions on absentee voting, such as raising the automatic eligibility age from 65 to 74.
We think lawmakers should leave absentee voting alone and settle on a 10-day early voting period. That would cover two weekends before a Tuesday election day, which should provide ample opportunity for people to find a convenient time to vote.
Such a compromise would require both sides to quit jockeying for a political edge from the new law. And, sadly, that might prove to be an insurmountable stumbling block.
But the law needs to be changed this year because next year is an election year. And the guiding principle should be making it easier for people to vote.
Making people wait for hours to vote is the practical equivalent of denying them the privilege of casting a ballot. That is unacceptable.
The state could reduce waiting time by providing hundreds more voting machines at polling places. But allowing 10 days of early voting would be simpler and cheaper.
Again, the goal is to make it easier, not harder for people to vote.