With a pandemic still raging, the S.C. Legislature made the wise decision this fall to allow all registered voters to cast absentee ballots in this year’s general election. Lawmakers didn’t set about to conduct an experiment in making voting easier for voters — and over time less expensive for taxpayers — but it served as one nonetheless.
And now that the experiment is complete, the results are clear:
•No one has alleged, even without evidence, that South Carolina’s voting was tinged by fraud — not even that small handful of Republican lawmakers who were lining up after the election to complain about vote-stealing Democrats in other states.
•South Carolina did not drown in a blue wave, as some lawmakers apparently worried. To the contrary, voters doubled down on their Republican preferences.
•Absentee voting didn’t cause massive technical problems; there were some delays in getting all the votes counted, but they had to do with procedures that weren’t updated sufficiently to account for more absentee voting and, more importantly, the switch from an electronic to a paper voting system.
•And voters clearly liked the idea. Half of all the votes in South Carolina were cast before Election Day. That’s more than double the portion and nearly three times the number four years ago, when you had to be old or sick or have one of a handful of other legally defined excuses to cast an absentee ballot.
Beyond benefiting themselves, what 1.3 million S.C. voters did by casting their votes early was allow election officials to keep the waiting time much shorter than it otherwise would have been — without having to resort to the traditional method of shortening the wait time: spending tax money to purchase additional voting equipment and hiring even more poll workers.
That would always be a good result, but it was even more important in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, where our odds of becoming infected with COVID-19 increase the longer we are around other people, particularly in crowds.
Indeed, it’s the simple economics of that matter — certainly not any desire to end the ritual of communities turning out together to cast their votes on a single day — that inspired us even before the pandemic to advocate allowing all S.C. voters to cast absentee ballots.
Another reason: Those long waits that inevitably result from too many people trying to use too few voting machines cause a hardship for voters who have to return to work or stay on a child-care schedule. Allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail or in person before Election Day puts everybody on an equal footing with retirees, state government employees (who automatically get the day off) and those of us who have the luxury of flexible work hours.
It’s true that, as was the case across the country, South Carolina saw a decided partisan split in this year’s voting methods: There were nearly 790,000 votes for President Donald Trump and 370,000 for Joe Biden on Election Day but the reverse — 265,000 for Mr. Biden and 170,000 for Mr. Trump — by mail. In-person absentee voters showed a slight Biden preference: 455,000 to 425,000.
We suspect that has more to do with conditions specific to this year’s election — namely the president’s efforts to encourage Election Day voting and the greater likelihood that Biden supporters would want to limit their potential COVID exposure by voting by mail — than any long-lasting feelings about voting absentee. After all, the S.C. Republican Party has been making a huge effort in recent years to convince its most reliable voters to cast absentee ballots.
More than 500,000 South Carolinians voted for President Trump in advance, and even if absentee voting were to become a predominately Democratic preference, the process still would benefit all the Republicans who vote on Election Day by shortening their wait times, as happened on Nov. 3.
In other words, expanded absentee voting helps everybody, regardless of party preference. And it does so without increasing the cost of elections.
That’s why most Republicans and Democrats in our Legislature have supported bills to permanently expand absentee voting in years past. The bills have never become law, though, because lawmakers disagreed over the precise rules.
What this experiment demonstrated is that while there are tweaks that could make the system better, even a simple expansion like this one would save our state money and save our voters time, without exposing our election system to fraud. It also demonstrated that lawmakers should make a permanent absentee-for-all voting system one of their top priorities in the 2021 legislative session.