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March 4, 2014

SC liquor stores may be allowed to open on Election Day

South Carolina is the last state in the country that bans liquor sales on Election Day, but that could end before voters choose a governor and two U.S. senators in November.

South Carolina is the last state in the country that bans liquor sales on Election Day, but that could end before voters choose a governor and two U.S. senators in November.

A bill scheduled for discussion by an S.C. House panel Wednesday would make buying whiskey, vodka and scotch legal when polls are open statewide.

“Nobody could give me a good reason why we don’t do it,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, the Richland Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor. “It’s an arbitrary day that you’re telling liquor stores not to open. Government needs to stay out of private business.”

The bill also could prevent the governor from forcing liquor sales to close on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Election Day ban costs South Carolina merchants an estimated $1.1 million in sales and the state about $105,000 in taxes, said Jay Hibbard, vice president for government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association that represents alcohol producers and marketers.

Six states have repealed Election Day booze bans since 2008, including Kentucky, which acted last year. South Carolina remains the only holdout, Hibbard said. “Laws like this make no sense in today’s economy.”

But state Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, said he would like to keep the Election Day liquor prohibition.

“To me, Election Day is important enough to not do it,” he said of alcohol sales. “It sets a good precedent and may even be a reminder to some folks that it’s Election Day. It can’t hurt.”

Election Day liquor sale bans date back to Colonial times, when taverns were polling places and voters were bribed with drinks, South Carolina historian Walter Edgar said.

“It was an easy way to get people to vote your way,” he said.

South Carolina restaurants and bars can serve alcohol on Election Day but not retail stores. Spirits giant Diageo and the Total Wine store chain are among the bill’s backers.

A bill lifting the Election Day ban passed the S.C. House in the previous legislative session but did not get far in the state Senate. That proposal would have halted liquor sales only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Governors can order stores closed on holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas as they have in the past, even though state law does not require it.

The new bill could change that.

The proposal suggests trimming language that allows the governor to halt alcohol sales in the interest of “public morals and decorum.” That would end the ability of the state’s chief executive to close liquor stores on holidays.

Rutherford said he could envision some liquor stores opening on Thanksgiving if the law is changed. But he thinks they would choose to remain closed on Christmas.

As for Election Day sales, Rutherford said he is willing to take a chance on voters drinking before heading to the polls and casting ballots against him.

“They’re probably Republicans anyway, so I’m not going to worry about it,” he said.

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