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Lawsuits attempt to expand absentee voter access for SC's June primaries

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Voters cast ballots in a recent election. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — With less than two months until South Carolina's primary elections, a pair of lawsuits were filed Wednesday in attempt to expand absentee voter access amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike some states which allow "no-excuse" absentee voting, South Carolina currently has a limited list of reasons why voters can request absentee that does not include self-isolating due to a pandemic.

The South Carolina Democratic Party and national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took their complaint to the S.C. Supreme Court, urging the court to consider people who choose to maintain social distancing to avoid contracting the virus as "physically disabled" in order to be eligible.

"Unless South Carolina’s 3.3 million registered voters are given the ability to safely exercise their right to vote without having to make that choice, the upcoming elections will not be free and open and protected from tumult, in violation of the South Carolina Constitution," the complaint alleges.

Two Democratic candidates competing in contested primaries on June 9 are also named as plaintiffs in the Democrats' suit: Columbia attorney Rhodes Bailey, who is running for the Statehouse, and Charleston attorney Rob Wehrman, who is running for county council.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina filed suit in federal court, arguing that enforcement of state's excuse requirement while the risk of coronavirus transmission remains high would violate the right to vote under the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act.

Plaintiffs in the ACLU's lawsuit include five South Carolina voters, some of whom are at elevated risk of severe complications if they contract the coronavirus, as well as a nonprofit that, among other missions, helps eligible, low-income South Carolinians understand and perform absentee voting.

The ACLU suit also takes issue with a South Carolina requirement that all mail-in ballots be signed by a third-party witness in addition to the voter, which they argue would pose an "unreasonable obstacle to many South Carolina voters" in light of the virus.

About 29 percent of South Carolina residents live by themselves, according to U.S. Census data, including 200,000 South Carolinians over the age of 65.

Both lawsuits were filed against the state Election Commission, whose own executive director, Marci Andino, wrote a letter to state lawmakers last month recommending potential steps to make the election safer, including no-excuse absentee voting.

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In the letter, Andino described no-excuse absentee voting as a "relatively simple" change for election officials to make.

Gov. Henry McMaster said last week he sees "no reason" to postpone the primary elections past their set date of June 9. He delegated any changes in the voting process to the General Assembly, saying it would require them to change state law.

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said elected officials have "a moral responsibility to protect citizens and a constitutional responsibility to make sure our Democracy does not falter."

"It is the height of recklessness to ask volunteers to risk their lives staffing polls and precincts when the Republicans controlling our government have the ability to take action and protect lives by eliminating the qualifications for absentee voting and transition to a mail-in voting program," he said.

Elections have come under increasing scrutiny after an April 7 election in Wisconsin forced anxious voters to wait in lines for hours due to fewer polling locations. Wisconsin health officials said Tuesday they have identified at least seven people who may have contracted the coronavirus from participating in the election.

A wide array of South Carolina offices will be on the ballot June 9, including races for Congress, the state House and Senate and county-level positions.

Overseas ballots are set to be mailed out by Friday and in-person absentee voting is scheduled to start May 11. The lawsuit asks the court to consider expediting the lawsuit process to ensure a decision is reached in time for voting.

The tag team of the S.C. Democratic Party and DCCC have already found some success by going to the courts in recent months.

Late last year, they sued the state Election Commission over a longstanding provision requiring prospective voters to submit their full social security number in order to register, arguing that the unusual mandate had an unconstitutional chilling effect on residents who were worried about sharing that information.

Within a couple of months, the state's solicitor general penned a letter allowing election officials to accept just the last four digits of social security numbers as sufficient on voter registration applications.

Caitlin Byrd contributed to this report. Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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