Early voting remains source of controversy in Legislature
COLUMBIA — After years of having their efforts turned aside by state House Republicans, Democrats in South Carolina this year now appear to have more support for early voting from the GOP than at any time in recent memory.
But despite Republican support for early voting proposals in both chambers of the General Assembly, the issue remains a political flash point.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states and the District of Columbia have no-excuse early voting, which allows voters to cast ballots without providing an excuse during a designated period before Election Day.
South Carolina does not have early voting. It’s one of 15 states that allows voters to cast absentee ballots so long as they can provide one of nearly 20 excuses laid out in state law, such as having to work on Election Day or being 65 or older.
In the Palmetto State, participation in absentee voting has increased dramatically in recent presidential elections. So much so, in fact, that the State Election Commission now believes that the lack of no-excuse early voting has almost certainly led many voters to lie about an excuse — a crime punishable by up to three years in prison — in order to be able to vote early anyway.
The state’s absentee voting process is now used as “de facto early voting,” the commission’s spokesman, Chris Whitmire, has said.
Republicans have long opposed early voting in South Carolina.
Generally, residents from counties favoring Democratic candidates vote absentee in greater numbers than residents in Republican-backing counties (voters do not register by party in South Carolina, so breaking down absentee vote totals is an inexact science).
After years of failure, Democrats could finally win enough support this year from Republicans to bring true early voting to South Carolina.
But the conditions House Republicans could place on such a change may cause Democrats to balk, killing early voting for another year.
The Senate, which on some issues such as early voting has a working coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, has passed early voting bills in previous years. But the proposals have died in the House.
This year, a perhaps unlikely candidate has introduced an early voting bill in the lower chamber.
The sponsor, Myrtle Beach Republican Rep. Alan Clemmons, was one of the leading architects of the state’s Republican-backed voter-identification law passed by the Legislature in 2011.
Clemmons, who heads the House election laws subcommittee, said he’s fulfilling a promise he made during the debate over the voter ID law to consider supporting early voting.
He said that’s despite his belief that people should vote on Election Day.
“The further we get away from our Election Day, the further we’re getting away from what our founding fathers intended,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons also said S.C. Democrats use the current 30-day absentee voting period for “organizational gain” and getting their voters to the polls.
He has proposed allowing early voting periods that begin 10 days before an election and end three days prior to the contest.
Clemmons’ bill would eliminate in-person absentee voting, which has favored Democrats, raise the age for qualification for absentee voting from 65 to 72 and eliminate straight-party ticket voting.
Straight-ticket voting has slightly favored Democrats in recent elections. Clemmons said he proposes eliminating the practice because legal counsel has suggested the state must nix straight-ticket voting to deal with ballot design issues. Clemmons said during a hearing last week that House staff are continuing to study the issue.
Denmark Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers sits on the House election laws panel with Clemmons.
He said Clemmons’ bill is convoluted and “another attempt to limit access to the polls under the guise of early voting.”
Sellers said he takes issue with the proposals to restrict absentee voting and raise the age to qualify for it, as well as the proposed elimination of straight-ticket voting.
“At what point does government stop its intrusion? I think that’s unjust,” he said.
Sellers said he doesn’t see the bill passing in its current form.
In the Senate, every Democratic member is sponsoring a measure that would create early voting starting 11 days before an election and ending three days prior to the election. The measure would leave straight-ticket voting and current absentee voting procedures in place.
But the bill is stuck, despite clearing a GOP-controlled committee by an 18 to 2 margin. Republicans have placed a legislative block on the proposal, saying they want Democrats to first allow a vote on a so-called “nullification” bill. The nullification proposal by Beaufort GOP Sen. Tom Davis would bar state employees from enforcing the federal National Defense Authorization Act in the detainment of any U.S. citizen.
Democrats are blocking the proposal, saying they want a vote on their early voting bill first.
Columbia Democratic Sen. John Scott, a long-time backer of early voting, said he’s confident the Senate will resolve the impasse.