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SC Dems prep more lawsuits as Legislature punts on absentee voting expansion amid pandemic

John King

Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, argues in favor of an amendment about absentee ballots during a special session Wednesday, June 24, 2020. The amendment failed. Most House members wore masks. King was among several legislators who wore face shields. Seanna Adcox/Staff 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina Democrats are planning to file more lawsuits challenging the state's absentee voting limitations during the coronavirus pandemic after lawmakers declined to expand ballot options for the general election during their brief legislative session this week.

Republican leaders said they would consider taking action when they return in September if the pandemic is still at large, as health officials expect. They said they wanted to limit their brief time in the Statehouse this week to distributing federal funds for coronavirus relief.

Democratic lawmakers questioned the decision to wait.

"Why put off until tomorrow what we could do today?" asked state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg. 

House members voted down two proposed amendments Wednesday to the coronavirus relief package that would have expanded absentee voting for November, largely along party lines.

If any amendments had passed, it would have forced the Senate to return to the Statehouse again to approve them — a move Republicans said they wanted to avoid in order to minimize the risk of lawmakers contracting the virus.

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson threatened to return to the courts if the Legislature does not act this week. 

Before the primaries, Democrats filed a series of lawsuits in both federal and state courts challenging rules that require voters to cite one of several possible reasons to vote absentee, including old age, physical disability, work requirements or being out of town on election day.

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The efforts saw mixed results.

A federal judge ruled in Democrats' favor striking down a witness requirement for absentee ballots in the primaries. But the S.C. Supreme Court declined to intervene on absentee requirements more broadly after lawmakers approved changes by themselves while the lawsuit was still pending.

"What makes this particular circumstance somewhat different is we now have the actual cases and circumstances of the recent elections to back and substantiate our claims in court," Robertson said.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate agreed to limit their activity Tuesday to coronavirus relief funding. But state Sen. Chip Campsen, the Isle of Palms Republican who spearheaded the absentee voting expansion for the primaries, said he would support re-upping that change for the general election.

"We could still do that in September and there would be enough time to implement it, and if we are still under a state of emergency with the COVID crisis, I think we should," Campsen said.

S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick, however, suggested Democrats are only pushing the issue to "make it easier for them to win elections."

"This is another attempt to try and change the law for their own advantage," McKissick said. "It won’t work."

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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