What changes to SC’s voting law will mean for June primary, future elections

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Published: May. 16, 2022 at 6:49 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In just over two weeks, South Carolina voters will be able to head to the polls early to cast their ballots for the June 14 primary elections.

A new change in state law means voters will have an early, in-person voting option for every future election as well, an offering that did not previously exist on a permanent basis in South Carolina.

But at one point in the last few weeks, the bill that provided for this early-voting expansion appeared to be in jeopardy. Despite agreeing on most of the legislation’s language, a major disagreement between the state Senate and House of Representatives concerning oversight of the State Election Commission threatened to kill the entire bill.

But on the second-to-last day of the legislative session last week, lawmakers announced a compromise, which passed both chambers and which Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law Friday, in time to be implemented for the June primary.

“I kind of thought if the House and the Senate can both pass a bill of this magnitude unanimously, there was no way we were going to let this die,” Rep. Brandon Newton, R – Lancaster, said. Newton played a key role in guiding the bill through passage in the House this year.

Starting with the upcoming June primary, this new law guarantees two weeks of early voting before elections, or three days for run-off elections.

For the June 14 primary, early, in-person voting begins May 31 in every county and runs through June 10, not including Saturday, June 4, and Sunday, June 5. Polling places will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Early voting for any run-off elections will take place June 22-24 at the same hours and locations as the primaries.

All registered voters will have this early, in-person option, and they do not need to provide an excuse or reason for why they are voting early, as they previously had.

Each county will need to open at least one early voting site, but they can offer up to seven of them. Isaac Cramer, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and legislative chair for the South Carolina Association of Registration and Election Officials (SCARE), said because of the tight window between now and the primary, most counties will likely offer one early location for the primary, their voter registration office, but would probably expand to more places for the November general election.

The governor signing this bill into law at the end of last week leaves county elections offices with just over two weeks left to implement changes.

But Cramer said officials had been preparing for this since the start of the year.

“I can tell you that every single county director in this state welcomes early voting because it’s such a much better process for our voters and for election officials in processing them,” Cramer said.

Among other changes, this law also tightens up the qualifications determining which voters can receive a mail-in ballot, but that change will not go into effect until after the June primary, as will a requirement for the name, address, and signature from a witness who is at least 18 years old be included with mail-in absentee ballots.

“We can’t change those in the middle of an election on people, so all those changes to the paper absentee process will start July 1,” Newton said.

Under the new law, voters qualified to receive mail-in ballots include:

  • Voters with disabilities
  • Voters 65 years of age or older
  • Members of the Armed Forces and Merchant Marines of the United States, their spouses, and dependents residing with them
  • Voters admitted to hospitals as emergency patients on the day of an election or within a four-day period before the election
  • Voters who, for one of the following reasons, are unable to vote in person on any day of the early-voting period or on Election Day:
  • Employment obligations
  • Attending sick or physically disabled persons
  • Confined to a jail or pretrial facility pending disposition of arrest or trial
  • Absent from their county for any reason

For the primary, mail-in ballot applications are now due two Fridays before the election, June 3, at 5 p.m. Before they had been due the Friday before.

The law gives workers more time to open mail-in ballots. While they previously could not do so until 9 a.m. on Election Day, they can now open outer envelopes on Sunday and inner envelopes Tuesday at 7 a.m.

It also makes voter fraud a felony in South Carolina, increasing penalties for convictions, and permanently bans third-party spending by elections offices.

A ban in the law on fusion voting, in which candidates run for the same office for more than one party, will go into effect next year, as some candidates for lower offices had already filed to run in this manner in this year’s elections, when it was still legal in South Carolina.

Newton called the changes long overdue.

“We were one of less than 10 states that didn’t have early voting,” he said. “We were one of the very few states that didn’t let them process the absentee ballots. We were just so far behind the curve on every aspect of our election law. This was drastically needed.”

Cramer believes the new early voting option will be popular in future elections, given how many voters took advantage of no-excuse, absentee voting in 2020, when it was available on a temporary basis because of the pandemic.

“In Charleston County, we had 75% of our voters vote early. I think we’re going to see that trend continue in South Carolina with early voting now, that any voter can show up, and they will because they already have,” he said.

As on Election Day, voters will need to bring their photo ID or voter registration card with them to vote early in person.

Cramer also recommends they visit the South Carolina Election Commission website to find out which early voting locations will be open in their county.

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