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Editorial: SC lawmakers made the right call on absentee voting. Now make it permanent

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Democratic Presidential Primary (copy)

The Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to let voters mail in their ballots rather than waiting in lines in the June 9 primaries. Lawmakers need to make that change permanent. Brad Nettles/ Staff

There’s no way to justify forcing people to choose between endangering their health — and the health of everyone they come in contact with — or giving up their right to vote.

Just about everybody understands that.

But there’s an irrational conviction among some on the far right that making voting easier is part of a leftist plot to facilitate fraudulent voting. And that conviction is only intensified by the equally extremist insistence on the far left that even the most reasonable voting restrictions are designed to disenfranchise black voters.

Because this is a deeply Republican state, the prospect of the Legislature allowing even a temporary easing of South Carolina’s absentee voting law in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed remote at best.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see how easily the Legislature, in its first real opportunity to act since the depth and duration of the coronavirus danger became clear, agreed to solve the problem.

With a smattering of questions but nothing that could be called “debate,” the House and Senate both voted unanimously — 37-0 in the Senate and 108-0 in the House — to allow all S.C. voters to cast an absentee ballot in the June 9 primaries and June 23 runoffs. Currently, everyone 65 and older can vote absentee, but others must provide a state-sanctioned excuse: They’re sick, on vacation, have a job that makes it impossible to go to the polls, and so on.

No, the Legislature did not permanently change South Carolina law to allow everyone to cast absentee ballots — although it should, and certainly it should have extended this special provision through the November election. Nor will the state mail out ballots to every voter, and pay for postage for voters to return those ballots — which we see no reason to do.

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Instead, lawmakers gave us what we need right now: A solution to an immediate problem.

Lawmakers pledged to work through the summer on a permanent expansion of South Carolina’s absentee voting law — and to authorize another exception for November if they can’t work that out. They also agreed to allow election workers to start opening absentee ballots earlier than usual to prevent a delay in election results.

The common-sense compromise came hours after the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit seeking to force a much more expansive process than the Legislature passed. So it avoided the danger that a state or federal court would reinterpret state law to make it say something lawmakers clearly had not intended it to say.

The vote also served as an important reminder that social media — the primary battlefield for extremists — is where people go to hate, but the Legislature is where they go to solve problems: Even legislators who were spouting the ridiculous claim on Tuesday that the state’s contact-tracing law would result in Chinese-style lockups of people who test positive for COVID-19 did not oppose the change in the end.

We believe there is tremendous civic value in voters coming together on one day, at their local polling place, to participate in the foremost act of democracy. But reducing the percentage of people who cast votes on Election Day — without reducing the percentage of people who vote — is the best way to shorten wait times without increasing the cost of holding elections. And with the coronavirus still spreading, we encourage everyone to request and return an absentee ballot rather than showing up at their polling place, where they risk becoming infected or infecting poll workers and other voters.

We also urge the Legislature to find a way to permanently increase voting options — preferably by authorizing a brief in-person early voting period, but at the very least by giving all voters the option that everyone 65 and older takes for granted: casting their votes by mail.

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