In the first week of absentee voting for the 2016 election, 1,063 Charleston County residents cast ballots.
On Monday, 1,294 folks showed up at the North Charleston Coliseum for the first day of 2020 in-person absentee voting. Another 1,206 turned out Tuesday, followed by 1,330 on Wednesday.
A lot of people clearly have strong opinions about this. And not everyone is going to be happy with the results — whatever they turn out to be.
Gibbs Knotts, the College of Charleston political scientist and coauthor of “First in the South: Why South Carolina’s Presidential Primary Matters,” says all this uncertainty is actually the way elections ought to be.
“It’s good to have a competitive election,” Knotts says. “When one party knows they have it in the bank, it’s not good.”
Amen. But try telling that to hardcore partisans.
Like most professional politicos, Knotts isn’t ready to predict a blue wave anywhere near here … well, other than Folly Beach. As he points out, 2016 exit polling found 46% of the state’s voters identified as Republicans. That’s an advantage hard for any statewide Democrat to overcome.
But with this sort of turnout, anything can happen. Congressman Joe Cunningham is polling even or better in the Republican-leaning 1st District race against GOP candidate Nancy Mace. And a series of state polls show Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison in an improbable dead heat with Sen. Lindsey Graham.
As Knotts points out, some of those polls have small sample sizes and large margins of error. But when you see several with the same results, and a reputable outfit like the Cook Political Report reclassifies the race as a “toss-up” ….
“A lot of things are falling into place for the Democrats. They’ve got a good candidate with a good story and the money to put that story on the air,” Knotts says. “Graham is a strong candidate, but he’s made himself a less-competitive general election candidate. People always liked him because he was a reach-across-the-aisle kind of guy.”
And that has, uh, changed, although Graham is still sort of helping Democrats: Harrison should list him as a campaign contributor, seeing as how a lot of his donations have come from people across the country who don’t like Lindsey. Cook says Graham’s favorable ratings are underwater even in South Carolina.
There have been long lines for voting all across the state this week — in Columbia, York County, Aiken, Beaufort and Berkeley County (which has doubled its first week in-person absentee voting this week over 2016).
Dorchester County only has its St. George office open for in-person absentee voting right now, but Todd Billman, executive director of elections, says the county has had 900 votes cast in a period where there are usually 100-200.
"Our highest turnout ever was 67 or 68%," Billman says, "But this election could go 70-80%."
The political rule of thumb has always been the more people who vote, the better Dems do. But that’s not certain this year. Because the polarization is strong in this one.
“Trump has a loyal following that has a love for the guy that’s hard to quantify,” Knotts says. “On the other side, you have people who have spent every day of the last four years waiting to get out and vote against him.”
Exactly. But Charleston County voters have several important reasons to vote: a competitive congressional race, that hot Senate race and the presidential election. As if that weren't enough.
Joe Debney, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, says in 2016, the last presidential election, 16,000 people voted absentee by mail. This year, more than 60,000 have already applied to vote by mail.
Sure, some of that increase is about the pandemic … but nearly four times as much?
Not everyone is going to end up happy after Nov. 3, but this is why we have elections. Everyone should want to vote, especially here, where control of County Council and the school board will be decided. And several state legislative races are more competitive than the General Assembly generally likes for them to be.
If you want to avoid worries about the mail, Debney says absentee ballots can be delivered to staffed, drive-by drop boxes at the coliseum during voting hours. There will be boxes at three satellite locations, too, which crank up Oct. 19.
Mostly, though, people should get engaged, vote, and don’t take anything for granted. And if it goes the way some people don't expect, don't assume fraud.
Because 2020 has already proven that pretty much anything can happen.