Richland County elections office prepares for surge in absentee voting

Richland county elections office prepares for surge in absentee voting

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - There are less than 40 days until election day, and the Richland County Board of Voter Registration and Elections is gearing up for it.

The board met Thursday to discuss plans for absentee voting, poll workers and electronic poll books.

Officials anticipate a flood of absentee votes.

The Richland County Director of Voter Registration and Election, Alexandria Stephens, said they’ve already received over 50,000 absentee ballot requests, and that number will only continue to rise until the deadline Oct. 24.

Stephens said their goal is to make sure the problems they saw in the primaries aren’t repeated. She said with 2,600 new and returning poll workers enrolled to help, they will be ready for high turnout.

“This election cycle will impact and change our lives for decades to come,” Charles Austin, the Richland County Board of Voter Registration and Elections Chair, said during the meeting.

With that in mind, the board said they are determined to make sure the November election is done right.

“The first thing I would like to do is debunk the myth that absentee votes are not counted," Stephens said. “Absentee itself is a precinct, so those actually are the first votes that are tallied.”

Changes around absentee voting came earlier this month when Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill that allows all South Carolina voters to vote absentee.

“I think election day turnout will still be higher, but I think absentee voting will be significantly higher,” Stephens said.

The law also allows registration offices to open the outer envelope of the ballots two days before election day.

“It allows for us to begin opening the outer envelopes that Sunday prior to the election because there are going to be so many," Stephens explained. “This election is going to be memorable.”

To handle this surge, the office has tripled the number of staff that will be opening the absentee ballot envelopes early and on election day.

The office is also opening six additional satellite locations where voters can drop off their absentee ballots if they don’t want to mail them back.

On Thursday afternoon, the Richland County Council also held a special board meeting to discuss a Safe Voting Plan Grant Agreement.

It’s an agreement that will give the Richland County Office of Voter Registration and Elections $730,000 in grant funds for things like absentee ballot equipment, funds for in-person voting at polling places, and secure drop boxes.

The board accepted a motion that allows the county to accept the grant, saying it will allow for improved access and security for the election.

Wednesday night, McMaster approved $5 million for the state Election Commission to purchase electronic poll books. They are machines that check voters in electronically at the polls.

Stephens said the machines will speed up check in, but she has not been informed when counties will begin receiving the machines.

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