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Columbia mayor says election night could become 'election week' because of mail-in ballots

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Seawright Moultrie Benjamin

Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, left, speaks as Pastor Simeon Moultrie and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin listen during a political forum on Sept. 15, 2020

With mail-in ballots expected to come in droves during November's election, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is warning it is possible that races — including the presidential tilt between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden — might not have a clear winner on election night.

That was just one of a number of topics broached Sept. 15 as a handful of Columbia's Democratic power players — Benjamin, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, CBS News pundit Antjuan Seawright and U.S. senate candidate Jaime Harrison — gathered for a forum at the Capital City's The Brook Church. It was the first of two forums the church plans to hold in a series dubbed Politics, Money and Social Justice.

Benjamin, Columbia's first African American mayor, talked about the importance of securing the ballot in this particular year. Because of COVID-19, it is largely assumed that absentee ballots — both in-person and by mail — will likely come in record numbers in November across the nation. With concerns of what he called "unprecedented" voter suppression efforts by the Trump campaign — such as sowing doubt in the efficiency of the Postal Service — Benjamin said counting every vote will be critical.

Because of the preponderance of mail-in ballots, "election night" could stretch beyond Nov. 3, Benjamin offered.

"It is going to be our job, our collective job, to shape the narrative that it's not just going to be 'election day,'" the mayor said. "It may not even be 'election week.' We are going to have to do every single thing we possibly can to make sure every ballot is counted, and [to honor] the blood, sweat and tears of men and women who come before us, who laid down their lives, literally, for us to have an opportunity for us to participate in this American experiment."

While many could opt for mail-in absentee ballots this year, Clyburn was quick to advocate for people to vote absentee in-person, where, though there would still be lines, they likely wouldn't be as lengthy as on Nov. 3. 

"We are urging people to make October election month," said Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and highest-ranking Black member of Congress. He noted that Richland County will have a number of satellite early voting locations this year, rather than just the county administration building. 

"In October, we can vote in-person absentee," the congressman said. "I think that's where we ought to be organizing this campaign this year."

Seawright, the longtime S.C. Democratic strategist turned TV news pundit, stressed that activating Black men to vote in November will be critical if Biden is to unseat Trump. In the 2016 election, 13 percent of Black men voters chose Trump, a perhaps surprising number considering then-President Barack Obama, the nation's first Black commander-in-chief, pushed hard for voters to elect Hillary Clinton.

"If we do not have that kind of coalition or constituency [of Black men voters], in my view the most consequential constituency in a generation, vote against Donald Trump and vote for Joe Biden and [vice presidential candidate] Kamala Harris, we will be repeating the sins of 2016," Seawright said.

"When you think about the issues that matter for all of us, the things we all believe should work for all of us — healthcare, infrastructure, education, access to the American experiment — African American men have always played a key role in unlocking that potential for all of us."

There are organizations on the ground with the specific purpose of encouraging  Black men to vote this year. For instance, the nonprofit Amplify Action — which is focusing its efforts in Southern states such as South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama — has a goal to register 110,000 Black men to vote before the November elections, and mobilize up to a quarter-million people to vote.

Harrison is trying to unseat longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in November. Toppling Graham — a Trump ally — is considered a tall task in a GOP-leaning state. Just two Democrats are among the state's nine-member congressional delegation.

In his well-funded campaign against the incumbent — Harrison raised nearly $14 million in the second quarter of this year alone, and has flooded TV with ads — Harrison has keyed on kitchen table issues, particularly those that might affect rural areas, like expanding access to healthcare and making way for more widespread internet service.

"Rural broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st century," Harrison said. "We have almost 500,000 people [in the state] who don't have access to the internet. What do you do when you are in the midst of a pandemic where you have to work from home and educate your kids from home? When that statistic came out [earlier this summer] that said 17,000 kids hadn't been in contact with their school systems since March, I almost dropped in my seat."

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