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Greenville official on early voting: 'You won't have these kind of lines on Election Day'

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Early voting County Square

Voters wait in line at County Square in Greenville for in-person absentee voting on Monday afternoon, Oct. 26, 2020.

The concept was simple: South Carolina has allowed everyone to vote early to help avoid chaos wrought by the pandemic and the specter of long lines on Election Day.

Now, Greenville County’s elections director says it might be wise to rethink that plan.

In the three weeks since early voting began in Greenville County, lines every day have plodded along in serpentine fashion for two hours, sometimes more.

It was no different Monday at County Square, where lines stretched farther than when the first day of in-person early voting began.

“The wait at a polling place is not going to be near what these lines are in absentee voting,” county elections director Conway Belangia told The Post and Courier, just a week from Election Day on Nov. 3. “At just about any polling place in Greenville County, with a few exceptions, we’re going to process voters within an hour to an hour and a half.”

The state’s endorsement of mail-in voting was designed to alleviate concerns over the potential for coronavirus infection at polling places. However, out of the roughly 60,000 early votes cast so far by mail or in-person, Belangia said as many as 20,000 have shown up at County Square or four other satellite locations.

This past Saturday, wait times reached more than four hours. In one case, warm temperatures led a chemotherapy patient to faint, he said.

“We have a few people who are putting their health at risk to stand in line for three hours when they can go to their polling place and stand in line for an hour,” he said. “You won’t have these kinds of lines on Election Day. It just won’t happen.”

It’s a firm statement, but it also comes at a time when elections officials — not just in Greenville, but across South Carolina — have been caught by surprise at just how long the lines have been.

When early voting opened on a Monday on Oct. 5 with long wait times, Belangia told The Post and Courier that he believed absentee lines would become more manageable by the end of the week. The longtime director was banking on a combination of mail-in participation and the four satellite locations in Simpsonville, Travelers Rest, Greer and Gantt.

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“When we opened up these satellites,” he said, “we had no idea of what was expected, and if we had any idea that we’d be voting this many people in the absentee process two months ago, I would have told them they’re crazy.”

However, Belangia said he’s as confident — as much as he can be during a pandemic — that voting on Election Day will be manageable, with a full staff of poll workers hired and trained thanks to an extra $100 in pay and the sheer number of polling places to spread out the number of people voting.

There will be few changes in polling places — all schools usually available will still be — and voters will be alerted this week by mail to any alterations in location.

Belangia said he expects to have results counted by the end of the election night.

There appears to be a higher preference to vote in person than originally thought, even using mail ballots. Out of the approximately 45,000 mail in votes received, a quarter of them were hand-delivered, he said. There are still 15,000 mail ballots outstanding.

The hand-delivering and commitment to voting early he said are a symptom of skepticism in the voting process that has been sewn both by interests domestic and foreign to suppress participation.

Already, he said, there is room for second-guessing.

In places like North Carolina and Georgia, entire sports arenas are opening to provide adequate social distancing and accommodate a high turnout. Those states have different voting laws but Belangia said the expansive Greenville Convention Center probably could have been used and might be in the future.

The Greenville Drive minor league baseball team offered downtown's Fluor Field as a potential location, which would have allowed for covered outdoor space and a facility readymade to process people that would better accommodate what is happening now outside County Square, just a few hundred feet away.

“Hindsight is 20/20," he said. "We never expected what we’re looking at now."

Follow Eric on Twitter at @cericconnor.

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