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Absentee voting expansion on track after SC Senate approves changes; House to vote later

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Even with all voters allowed to cast ballots absentee in South Carolina’s June 9 primaries, the polls were busy. Election officials worry about an onslaught for the November election if the Legislature doesn’t make several changes to the law. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — All South Carolina voters will likely be able to cast absentee ballots in the November general election after the state Senate approved the change Wednesday as a response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The measure now goes to the House, which will take it up later this month.

But the Senate's Republican majority declined to make several other changes recommended by state and county election officials. Those suggestions included eliminating a requirement that absentee ballots be signed by a witness in addition to the voter, allowing voters to apply for absentee ballots online and letting voters submit their ballots through drop boxes.

Republicans cited concerns about potential voter fraud, but Democrats alleged it was a manufactured excuse to make it more difficult for South Carolinians to vote during the public health crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said their goals were to ensure South Carolinians would be able to exercise their vote while putting safeguards in place to "protect the integrity of the election process."

"The legislation that we passed today accomplishes both of those goals and we're very pleased about that," Massey said.

Democrats did not buy that argument, noting that South Carolina has seen few, if any, proven cases of voter fraud, including after the June primaries.

"Some folks keep talking about how this has to be secure," said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia. "Sometimes I'm afraid that is a euphemism for exclusive, in the sense of excluding people from voting."

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A federal judge struck down the witness signature requirement for the June primaries, reasoning it could unnecessarily put voters at risk. That lawsuit remains in court, creating the possibility that U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs could strike it down again.

The S.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a similar lawsuit Sept. 18.

Under ordinary rules in South Carolina, voters are required to cite one of several possible reasons to cast an absentee ballot, including being 65 or older, physical disability, work requirements or being out of town on Election Day.

The change passed Wednesday would let any voter cast absentee a ballot if there is a "state of emergency" in their area, which currently covers the entire state due to the pandemic. The change only applies to the 2020 general election.

The Senate bill extends the time that election officials have to open absentee envelopes to two days before the Nov. 3 election, a change officials requested due to the anticipated high volume of absentee ballots.

But it prevents voters from submitting their absentee ballot through drop boxes, forcing them to either return it by mail or in person. The State Election Commission had already ordered drop boxes at the request of counties, but that is now being canceled, according to commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

The House is set to return Sept. 15 and leaders in that chamber have indicated they will likely approve the Senate measure.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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