COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina’s June 9 primary is exactly two weeks away.
In the face of the COVID-10 pandemic, counties have been working to plan for safe polling sites and the wave of absentee votes they expect after lawmakers expanded the absentee voting reasons to include COVID-19 earlier this month.
Tuesday, the Richland County Delegation and the Richland County Board of Voter Registration and Elections each met virtually to discuss the issues the county faces as election day approaches.
The big takeaway from both meetings is that there will be far fewer polling locations and officials are expecting a huge surge in the number of absentee votes.
“The county really needs to make sure we get this right,” Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-District 78, said. “Richland County does not have the best track record in dealing with its elections.”
For more than a year, the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Commission has not had a permanent director, which worries some as they look at the challenges ahead. The board of directors is working to hire someone, but not before the June 9 primary.
“When we voted on this new board, they were charged with getting an elections director and we are a year later and we still don’t have one -- so that’s extremely disappointing,” Bernstein said.
Elections officials said the commission plans to have a new director hired by July 1.
For the June 9 primary, Terry Graham, the interim director, said the commission has struggled getting polling staffers to return, as well as having some locations simply refuse to host voting.
“We’ve got 72 clerks and 149 precincts -- so we have to combine about 70 of our locations due to that reason,” Graham said.
Graham said they will open as many polling locations as possible, but right now they are seeing a surge in absentee voting. As of Tuesday, they’ve gotten more than 18,000 requests for an absentee ballot, almost double the number from 2016.
He said they are also increasing the number of staffers to help with absentee voters from six to 10. However, members of the delegation worry that 10 staffers still might not be enough.
“I am very concerned that we are not going to be equipped to handle the influx of absentee ballots and with that we need to make sure we have the number of staff that can handle it,” Bernstein said. “I’m not sure 10 will be sufficient if we had six in the presidential primary.”
Bernstein said she expects even more absentee ballots in the wake of a U.S. District Court ruling that absentee voters in South Carolina no longer need a witness signature for their ballot.
Another concern is having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for primary day. Officials said the State Election Commission ordered PPE, but it hasn’t arrived yet. They said they’ve ordered things like masks and hand sanitizer in case it doesn’t come in time.
Officials say they will be releasing new polling locations by the end of Tuesday, and plan to begin mailing postcards with everyone’s new polling locations starting Wednesday.