Election Commission says it might be election week in SC unless lawmakers act

Updated: Jul. 27, 2020 at 8:02 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Voters are used to learning who won an election the day they cast their ballot, but like so many aspects of life COVID-19 may change that tradition.

“We don’t know how long it would take [to count ballots], that would depend on the actual volume we experience, but it may take days after Election day to get election results,” said SC Election Commission Director of Public Information, Chris Whitmire.

While Whitmire says a week to officiate results might be possible, the University of South Carolina Political Science professor Todd Shaw says that’s a best-case scenario and the reality may be up to a month.

In June, voters in Richland County waited up to four hours to vote in a primary election, stood in lines that wrapped around buildings and into adjacent woods, and were frustrated and confused when their traditional polling place was combined with a nearby precinct’s location.

Election officials said this was because of a shortage of poll workers and voting locations that refused to be a polling place because they didn’t want to be open to the public during the pandemic. In November, the commission is expecting similar problems because the virus is still infecting more than 1,000 people a day in the Palmetto State.

“We expect polling places to not be available, we expect poll manager shortages, we can replace poll managers with inexperienced managers, but it is a recipe for an inefficient election day process,” he said.

In a letter sent to Republicans Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas, the SC Elections Commission calls the June voting delays in Richland County “isolated issues” and says the “the primaries were successful overall.” But they say historically general elections have “significantly higher” turnout than primaries. And in the letter, the Executive Director of the SC State Election Commission wrote, “additional actions are necessary to ensure a safe and efficient election process in November.”

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setlzer also sent the letter and responded on Monday by calling for the General Assembly to meet to discuss voting before the Statehouse is set to return in September. Peeler responded on Twitter writing, “Our goal will be to protect the safety of the voter and the vote. We should be able to accomplish that in September.”

The Commission’s letter lays out six action items for lawmakers to consider. Including reinstating the “state of emergency” reason for allowing voters to vote absentee, allowing voters to apply for an absentee ballot online, and giving election officials more time to process absentee-by-mail ballots.

Whitmire says they want to give people as many options as possible to safely vote in the upcoming election. So, they want to make it simpler for people to vote absentee during the pandemic.

There is no voting by mail in South Carolina, instead, absentee ballot applications currently require people to select one of 18 reasons they need to be voting absentee. Those reasons range from being 65 years old or older, having a planned vacation on Election day, and for people who are sick or disabled.

Whitmire is expecting absentee voting to reach record highs this year if a state of emergency is extended, which would make it possible for every South Carolinian to vote absentee. If that were to happen Whitmire says that move would help the state’s in-person voting system run smoothly, but the Election Commission fears without longer times for poll workers to count absentee ballots there could be additional delays.

“Right now we can only open the exterior envelope at 9 am on the day before the election. Then on Election Day we open the interior envelope that has the ballot in it, take it out, and scan it. So, the bulk of absentee by mail processing happens on election day,” he said.

Shaw adds voter enthusiasm is high this year on both sides of the aisle because of economic hardships, concerns about healthcare because of the pandemic, and the polarized political climate. Therefore, turnout will be high and so will voter’s dedication to making their voice heard.

“Individuals are likely going to vote in record numbers, we saw pretty record turnout in other primary elections throughout the state. So yeah, I think people are preparing themselves for long waits,” Shaw said.

But Whitmire says ultimately this about making sure every eligible can vote in less than 100 days.

“We have to do things a little differently to protect people’s right to vote, and my concern is if we keep doing what has always been done then our process will be overrun and that ultimately prevents people’s right to vote,” he said.

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