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S.C. absentee voting nears 2004 record

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina is set to break a record in the number of voters casting absentee ballots.

As of Wednesday, nearly 155,000 voters had been issued absentee ballots. That's 6 percent of the state's electorate.

In contrast, 158,000 voters cast absentee ballots in the last presidential election. And nearly 92,000 voted absentee in 2000.

With Election Day a week and a half away, state election officials say a record is likely by Nov. 4.

"We've almost reached the total number of absentee ballots cast in the 2004 election," said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. State Election Commission. "That's an indicator that there's a high level of interest in this election."

Still, it's unclear which residents are voting absentee and for whom they're casting ballots. Those breakdowns won't be available until Election Day.

The S.C. campaigns of both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have encouraged supporters to vote before Nov. 4.

This year, there are about 240,000 new voters on the state's rolls, bringing the total to 2.54 million voters, according to the State Election Commission.

For those with questions about absentee voting, patience is a must.

Brian Talty of Irmo, for example, couldn't get through on the phone to the Richland County Election Commission to find out why his absentee ballot hasn't arrived in the mail.

Voters who show up in person will need patience, too. All week, the line at the Richland County office has been snaking out the door and around the corner.

Charleston, Richland and Greenville counties report the highest number of voters requesting absentee ballot applications.

It's a similar scene across the South where unprecedented numbers of early voters are prompting election officials to add equipment, extend schedules and hand out water and chairs to make people comfortable as they wait for hours at polling places.

About 15 percent of Georgia's voters have cast ballots.

In North Carolina, more than 500,000 people have cast ballots.

For anyone who is relying on the mail to cast a ballot, S.C. election officials say don't delay in beginning the process. Absentee ballot applications must be received by local election commissions by Halloween, Oct. 31.

Then, a ballot is mailed out to the voter and must be returned to the local election office by Nov. 4.

Voters in every state can cast early ballots and results won't be released until Nov. 4. About a third of the nation's electorate is expected to vote early this year.

DATES TO KNOW

Here are dates to keep in mind if you plan to vote absentee:

• If you are mailing your absentee ballot application to your local election office, the office must have your application by 5 p.m. Oct. 31. You also can drop off the application in person at your local office until that date.

• Once the office has your application, they will mail you a ballot. Your ballot must be back to the local office by 7 p.m. Nov. 4, Election Day. You can either mail or hand-deliver the ballot to your local office.

• If you are 65 or older or unable to make it to the polls on Election Day, you can vote early at your local election commission up until 5 p.m. Nov. 3. Go to scvotes.org for a list of qualifications.

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