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Ahead of SC Democratic vote, proposal to close primaries advancing at Statehouse

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COLUMBIA — As eyes turn to South Carolina’s Democratic primary this weekend, lawmakers are considering a major change to the process by requiring voters to register with a party.

And with announced plans by Republicans to upset Saturday's turnout by coming out in favor of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a passionate Joe Biden supporter wants anybody who votes in the primary to be required to take part in 2024's Democratic primary, as well. 

Both proposals are headed to the Senate Judiciary Committee for action. 

"What we have in South Carolina is an orchestrated attempt by the Republican Party to come into the Democratic Party and select who they view as the weakest candidate in the Democratic Party primary," state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said Wednesday. 

A Republican-led bill would require residents to sign an application certifying allegiance to a party on voter registration forms. It would apply to all elections moving forward from a still-to-be-determined implementation date. 

Under the bill, voters would commit themselves to a political affiliation filed with the state Elections Commission, although they could switch that designation up to 60 days ahead of an election. 

“You should pick which party you want to participate in,” Sen. Rex Rice of Easley said during a Wednesday Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting on his proposal. Anderson Republican Richard Cash is a co-sponsor.

The Palmetto State is one of 15 with an open primary, meaning voters don’t have to be affiliated with a particular party in order to participate.

Talk of revamping South Carolina's voting process comes in the midst of a push by some Republican leaders for rank-and-file support of Sanders. That's why Kimpson said he's sponsoring legislation locking those who vote on Feb. 29 into the 2024 primary, with a sunset provision after that. 

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Other lawmakers said the move is likely unconstitutional but approved it with a clause to release voters from requirement if they sign an affidavit acknowledging their participation was in good faith.

"We don't want to disenfranchise voters, and people do change their minds," said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. 

Kimpson said he was upset that a party's primary could be undermined by outsiders with malicious intent to sway an outcome.

"I think it's wrong for either party to have an orchestrated effort to hijack the other party's election," Kimpson said.

Both proposals have a slim chance of becoming law this year, with their legislative process just beginning and an April 10 deadline for bills to get from one chamber’s floor to the other.

Over the last six months, the state’s elector rolls grew by 70,715, pushing the number of eligible voters for Saturday’s primary to almost 3.3 million.

Lynn Teague of the South Carolina League of Women Voters said her organization opposes limiting access to the state's primaries.

"Disenfranchising legitimate voters by closing primaries would be an outcome that I don't think any of us should support," she said. 

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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