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150 SC State Guard members may be pulled into election duty for June primary

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Democratic Presidential Primary (copy)

People voting in the Democratic presidential primary wait in line at West Ashley High School just before the poles opened Saturday morning, February 29, 2020. Voting in 2020 will look very different. File/Brad Nettles/Staff 

State officials may use up to 150 members of the S.C. State Guard to act as poll workers in the June 9 Republican and Democratic primaries to supplement the shortfall expected because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The S.C. State Guard is separate from the state's National Guard but can act in coordination when there is a disaster or emergency.

It's a volunteer force of about 850. They answer to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who is the commander of the State Guard and a 15-year member.

Lott, a Democrat who is also on the ballot next month, said it is to be decided whether State Guardsmen would be stationed in Richland County.

Working the polls as State Guardsmen "has nothing to do with me being sheriff of Richland County," he said.

Lott described the State Guard's use as in the pre-planning stage and that a final decision will be made by the first part of next week, with various state agencies involved.

He is facing two challengers in the June Democratic primary: Jason Roberts and A.V. Strong.

State Guardsmen who work the election would receive standard poll worker wages. And they would receive online training.

Employing the State Guard comes as a record number of people are seeking to vote by mail this year — signs of a positive public response to lifting requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The total number of absentee ballots requested statewide reached nearly 146,000 at midday Friday, with the pace picking up in the week since the Legislature acted to lift absentee voting restrictions on an emergency basis.

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Charleston County — the anchor county to the 1st Congressional District where Republicans will pick a congressional nominee in a little more than two weeks — has the most requests: 23,000. It is followed by Richland County, which includes Columbia, with nearly 16,000.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said this week many voters who are attuned to the party primary process followed what the Statehouse did in trying to make the turnout safer.

Many were focused on "How can we do this in the safest way possible?" he said.

Prior to the pandemic, state law allowed voters to vote absentee either by mail or at county offices ahead of the election if they select a reason they can’t vote on Election Day. The various options they can check include being on vacation, having a disability, needing to work and being 65 or older.

Those and other categories were lifted for the primary only because of the pandemic.

Absentee ballots by mail have to first be requested through your local county elections office, and those requests will be taken through June 5 in Charleston, said county Elections Director Joe Debney.

Ballots are not automatically sent to those requesting them; officials first do a check to see if the requester is a legally registered voter. 

Voters can still come into offices and vote absentee in person up until June 8.

For more information, go to the S.C. Election Commission website at www.scvotes.org/absentee-voting.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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