The House voted 69-47 largely along party lines to accept the compromise reached by a conference committee two weeks ago, which neither of the two Democrats signed. The Senate is to resume debate Wednesday on what is arguably the session's most contentious issue. The bill will die if the Legislature can't agree by week's end.
The proposal would create an eight-day window, from Saturday to Saturday, when voters could cast ballots early without needing an excuse for why they can't vote on Election Day. It would continue to allow in-person absentee voting up to a month early with an excuse, but only on paper ballots.
Democrats in both chambers wanted two weeks of no-excuse early voting. And they called it impractical to limit early voting to only one location per county, saying that discriminates against people who live long distances from the county seat, especially in large counties such as Charleston.
The House initially passed the measure last year as voter ID only. The Senate version, passed in February, added early voting, which broke a stalemate that involved hundreds of looming amendments. In conference committee efforts to hash out the differences, House GOP leaders insisted they wanted no early voting, saying that should be reserved for Election Day, in case issues arise late in the campaign, then drew the line at a week.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, who was instrumental in pushing through the Senate plan, said he was disgusted by the partisan politics and the way the Senate gave in to the House after working so hard on a compromise earlier this year.
"We don't deserve to have it shoved down our throat at the last minute," said Malloy, D-Hartsville. "What's the rush on it for this year?"
Democrats also oppose requiring voters to show a picture ID, saying it would suppress the vote of minority, disabled and poor residents who don't have such ID. They called it a backlash to the election of President Barack Obama.
Roughly 180,000 of South Carolina's registered voters have neither a state-issued driver's license nor a photo ID, according to the state Election Commission.
But Republicans countered that in a post-Sept. 11 world, everyone should be accustomed to presenting identification, and it's an issue of voter integrity. Even if there's no evidence of voter fraud at the polls, lawmakers should take precautionary measures, said House Speaker Pro Tem Harry Cato.
Under the bill, residents 17 and older who don't have a driver's license could get a free photo ID card from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which would waive the $5 fee.
Democrats argued the bill's expense, which also includes required voter education programs, comes at a time when basic services are being slashed and workers are being furloughed and laid off.
"Where are the fiscal conservatives, the ones concerned about the revenue of this state and the best use of the spending of the state's money?" asked Rep. David Weeks, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. To "sacrifice the basic needs of this state to satisfy a political agenda? There's something wrong with that. We don't have any money."