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Absentee voting set to expand during pandemic; SC lawmakers reject other election changes

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All registered voters in South Carolina will be able to cast absentee ballots in the November election due to the coronavirus pandemic under changes approved by state lawmakers Tuesday. File/AP

COLUMBIA — All registered voters in South Carolina will be able to cast absentee ballots in the November election due to the coronavirus pandemic under changes approved by state lawmakers Tuesday, but the Republican majority rejected other proposals recommended by election officials.

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, having a physical disability, work requirements or being out of town on Election Day.

The change approved Tuesday by the S.C. House will 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 measure, which passed the Senate earlier this month, only applies to the 2020 general election.

The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster's desk for his signature. McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes confirmed the governor will sign it into law when it is ratified, saying the measure "strikes a good balance between protecting South Carolinians and the integrity of the voting process."

Though lawmakers almost unanimously approved the overall bill, agreeing on the value of expanding absentee voting, they bickered extensively over other provisions that Democrats argued would make it easier for people to cast their ballots but Republicans alleged would expose the state to potential voter fraud.

A majority of members voted mostly along party lines against amendments that would have removed a witness signature requirement for absentee ballots and allowed voters to deposit their ballots in drop boxes near their county election offices.

Lawsuits are still pending in federal and state courts that could reverse those decisions in advance of the general election.

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S.C. Election Commission executive director Marci Andino suggested removing the witness signature requirement and allowing drop boxes in a letter to lawmakers in July. County election officials offered similar recommendations.

In a combative debate on the House floor that lasted more than two hours, dozens of Democratic lawmakers pleaded with their colleagues to approve those changes, warning that the requirements could put voters in danger of contracting the virus and add unnecessary hurdles for casting their ballots.

"If your policies are so good, why are you afraid of people voting?" asked state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

But Republican lawmakers said they were concerned that those changes could lead to voter fraud and almost unanimously opposed them, leaving intact the same bill that passed through the Senate earlier this month.

"Despite the Democrats’ efforts to change the voting rules in the middle of the game, voters can rest assured knowing the safeguards we have in place will remain," said S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick in a statement after the bill passed.

The bill also adds a couple extra days for county election officials to begin opening the outer envelopes of absentee ballots. But it only gives them two additional hours on Election Day to begin opening inner envelopes and scanning ballots, which some county election officials fear is not enough and will lead to delayed results.

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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