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Coronavirus could impact SC elections, including possible delay of June party primaries

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Voting large lines .JPG (copy) (copy)

South Carolina election officials are in talks about making possible changes to this year's 2020 elections amidst the coronavirus pandemic. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

South Carolina election officials may recommend postponing the statewide June 9 primary, citing concerns about safe and secure elections amid the spread of the contagious new coronavirus.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission, confirmed the discussions to The Post and Courier on Tuesday.

"We're concerned about the June primaries and the general election, and really all of the elections that are scheduled to occur for 2020," Whitmire said.

The statewide primary will determine who will be the respective Republican and Democratic nominees for different races, including the high profile battles for U.S. Senate and U.S. House, as well as for other contests. 

All 124 seats in the state House of Representatives are up for reelection this year, along with the 46 seats in the state Senate.

The discussions here mirror conversations among election officials nationwide.

So far, at least 13 states have postponed voting as officials determine how to proceed in the midst of a worldwide health pandemic.

In addition to delaying South Carolina's June Republican and Democratic primaries, other options under consideration include implementing no-excuse absentee voting and early voting.

South Carolina does not currently have early voting or same-day voter registration.

To cast a ballot early in person, voters must instead visit their voter registration office in their county of residence, complete an application and cast their ballot. But in order to vote absentee, voters must give one of 18 permitted reasons. None apply to the current global health pandemic. 

Whitmire said state officials also are considering: 

  • Removing the witness requirement on absentee ballots.
  • Allowing voters with disabilities and first-responders to print their ballots online, a practice historically granted only to voters in the military and overseas citizens.
  • Opening early voting centers that could be spread out in communities to help limit contact.
  • Letting voters submit absentee voting applications online.
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The most drastic option would be a shift to a vote-by-mail system, like those used in Colorado and Washington state. 

That would require mailing ballots to every one of South Carolina's 3.3 million registered voters who would then cast their ballot by sending it back in the mail or turn it in at a designated drop-off site.

Whitmire said expanding to a vote-by-mail system would be the most dramatic option, since it would fundamentally change how South Carolinians vote.

"Nothing is out of the question," he said. "These are strange times and we are considering things today that we wouldn't have even been thinking about two months ago."

In order for elections to be altered in South Carolina, it would require an executive order from Gov. Henry McMaster or action by the state Legislature.

Earlier this month, McMaster used his executive powers to postpone 45 municipal and county elections that had been scheduled for March and April. They will instead be held after May 1. 

Brian Symmes, McMaster's spokesman, confirmed the governor's office has been in talks with election officials about potential changes. 

"There are plans and contingencies being deliberated daily among state officials and local officials about how to best protect South Carolinians from this virus. There is nothing that the governor won't do to further that cause," Symmes said.

Outside of possible changes to the elections calendar, Whitmire noted the coronavirus is threatening to disrupt the way elections are conducted in South Carolina.

"Are we going to lose poll managers? Will we lose polling places, since many of them are in schools and churches?" Whitmire said, ticking through the stream of questions being raised.

Poll workers in the state tend to be older, Whitmire said, noting that this army of election workers is classified by health officials as being at greater risk for catching the virus.

Of the roughly 2,300 voting sites in the state, many are in community spaces like schools, churches and, in the case of Greenwood County, one polling site is in a nursing home. 

It would not be unprecedented if South Carolina delayed its June primaries, Whitmire said. South Carolina postponed its statewide primaries in both 1992 and 1994, when the primaries were held in August.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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