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Editorial: Even with SC 'postage tax' gone, voting in pandemic is still too dangerous

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Voters, many without masks, formed a long line outside West Ashley High School during South Carolina's June primaries. Brad Nettles/Staff

The fact that we have to affix a stamp to our envelope when we mail in our absentee ballot does not mean — as Democrats claimed in their lawsuit seeking absentee ballots for all during the pandemic — that South Carolina levies a “postage tax” on voting. That’s like saying we have a gasoline tax on voting because people have to drive to their polling place.

But it can be a challenge to figure out how much postage you need, and some people don’t realize how easy it is to buy stamps. So the decision by Gov. Henry McMaster and the State Election Commission to use federal coronavirus relief funding to send postage-paid envelopes out with the absentee ballots people request for the November election will likely mean that some votes get counted that otherwise wouldn’t; that’s a good thing. It also will settle one of the issues in the lawsuit — another good thing.

But it won’t solve the real problem with voting this year: Most of us who are younger than 65 could be forced to cast our November ballots in crowded polling places in the middle of a still-raging pandemic. Only the Legislature can fix that problem, by changing the state law that limits absentee voting to people who are 65 or older or can’t make it to the polls for one of a handful of specific reasons, such as being out of town for vacation or work or being in the hospital.

That restriction hasn’t made any sense since South Carolina started buying voting machines: It’s ridiculously wasteful to purchase enough equipment — which is used an average of once or twice a year — to allow everybody to cast their ballots in person in a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, the state’s response has been to just make people wait in ever-longer lines, which forces them to give up their right to vote if they don’t have an employer who lets them take off  hours in the middle of the day to wait in those lines.

With COVID-19 still among us, the limit on who can vote absentee is also dangerous, to all of us.

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Charleston Republican Sen. Chip Campsen crafted an obvious solution in May, with a bill that allowed any voter to cast an absentee ballot if the governor declares a state of emergency within 45 days of an election. But in order to get it passed during an abbreviated legislative session, he had to limit it to the June primaries and runoffs.

It has become painfully clear since May that standing in too-long lines with too many of our neighbors will still be dangerous in November. So when the Legislature returns for its special budget session in September, it needs to extend that law. At the least. Not only is it smart policy; it’s also a smart insurance policy.

We doubt a judge would have found it unconstitutional to require people to pay for their own stamp to mail in their absentee ballot. But it might be easy to find one who says it’s unconstitutional to allow a perfectly healthy 65 year old to mail in her ballot during a pandemic while requiring a medically vulnerable 64 year old to stand in line to vote, which is what our current law does.

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