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Editorial: Let Richland voting debacle be a warning; extend absentee for all to November

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Richland primary voting lines (copy)

Richland County voters wait to cast primary ballots June 9 at Spring Valley High School, were some spent more than four hours in a line that stretched to the school's football stadium. Five precincts were combined into one at the Columbia school. Seanna Adcox/Staff

Another election, another election debacle in Richland County. This time it was voters waiting in line until midnight to cast a ballot, some getting the wrong ballot and, well, who knows what else might have gone wrong.

We’d do well to think of what happened in the state’s second largest county as the canary in the coal mine: a warning of what the entire state could look like if COVID-19 infection rates don’t drop significantly and stay low in November, and the Legislature doesn’t act well in advance to allow everyone to cast an absentee ballot, as it did for the June 9 primaries.

No, we don’t believe that all election commissions are as incompetent as the one in Richland County, which has now had significant problems with five elections over eight years — starting with that harrowing ordeal in the 2012 presidential election when the commission kept voting machines locked in warehouses, thousands of voters waited in 5-hour lines to vote and untold thousands more had to give up their right to vote because they had to get to work or child care. In fact, we know that none of the other 45 county election commissions comes close to Richland’s.

Richland County’s leadership problems — seven directors have come and gone in eight years, and Gov. Henry McMaster replaced the commissioners last year — made the agency incapable of handling the strain earlier this month when hundreds of poll workers decided not to work this election, more than half the polling places had to be combined, training was delivered online rather than in-person and still more poll workers didn’t show up on Election Day.

But multiply that kind of stress in low-turnout state primaries by the extra turnout of a presidential primary and the possibility that worries over the pandemic could be even higher in November, and it’s easy to imagine that even strong commissions could collapse.

That’s why the Legislature needs to act soon to extend the law it passed in May that allowed all registered voters to cast their ballot by absentee during a declared state of emergency. (Imagine how much worse the situation in Richland County would have been without that temporary law.)

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If the virus has subsided by the fall and we’re no longer in a state of emergency, then such a law won’t apply. But if we are, this would allow the State Election Commission, candidates and voting advocates to get the word out well in advance so that everyone has time for the two-week process of requesting an absentee ballot request, completing and returning that request, receiving their ballot and mailing it in before Election Day. And preventing Richland-style problems statewide.

Meantime, the State Election Commission has to get control of Richland County, because problems in one county’s voting affect everyone in South Carolina, since we all vote in the same statewide elections, and congressional and legislative districts cross county lines.

As a direct result of the 2012 Richland County debacle, the Legislature passed a law in 2014 that gave the State Election Commission the power and duty to remove incompetent county election officials, who until then had been largely unaccountable to anyone.

We were encouraged to see the state agency move immediately to intervene before this Tuesday’s runoffs, with a pledge to work on poll-manager training and allocation, voting-equipment testing and deployment, and voting day operations. That’s probably all it realistically could do so quickly. But once we get past the runoffs, the state must be prepared to move beyond the cooperative “let us help you” approach it has taken after the previous four election mishaps. These problems simply cannot be allowed to continue.

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