COLUMBIA — A state legislative panel approved a bill Tuesday that would create a nine-day early voting period in the state but eliminate its 30-day in-person absentee voting process.
House Democrats said replacing the 30-day window with a shorter early-voting period is a clear attempt to limit access to the ballot, with one Democrat saying the bill unfairly targets minority voters.
After years of pushing for early voting, House Democrats were upset Tuesday to learn that the proposal would eliminate the current absentee voting process that residents can use as long as they have one of nearly 20 excuses laid out in state law. Those excuses include having to work on Election Day or being 65 or older. Early voting wouldn’t require voters to provide an excuse.
“It’s a blatant falsehood to call this bill early voting,” said Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark. “It’s infuriating.”
Sellers said many of the people who use in-person absentee voting are minorities.
The State Election Commission could not be reached for comment on whether the commission maintains statistics on the ethnicity of absentee voters.
The bill’s sponsor, Myrtle Beach GOP Rep. Alan Clemmons, said the early-voting period wouldn’t restrict anybody and “opens up the process.”
At several points during the House Judiciary Committee meeting, Clemmons referenced past comments made by a spokesman for the Election Commission that absentee voting is now used as “de facto early voting.”
The spokesman, Chris Whitmire, has said the lack of no-excuse early voting in South Carolina has almost certainly led some voters to lie in order to be able to vote early anyway, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.
Clemmons said introducing early voting would eliminate any need for voters to lie in order to be able to vote absentee.
Columbia Democratic Rep. James Smith questioned whether Clemmons is “trying to engineer an outcome” by eliminating the extended absentee-voting period.
“It lessens voters’ ability to access the ballot,” Smith said.
The original version of Clemmons’ bill would have raised the age requirement for mail-in absentee voting to 72 or older. Under an amendment passed by the House panel, that age was lowered to the current requirement in state law that absentee voters be 65 or older.
Clemmons’ bill also would allow elections in South Carolina to take place once per quarter.