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SC election officials agree to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots

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Postage for returning absentee ballots in South Carolina's 2020 general election will be prepaid by the state after election officials agreed to changing their process. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

WASHINGTON — Return postage for all mailed absentee ballots in South Carolina's 2020 general election will be prepaid after state election officials agreed to change the process, resolving one of several voting-related issues Democrats sued the state over.

Several Democratic Party organizations and individual voters complained in federal court earlier this year about the requirement that voters pay for postage to return their absentee ballots by mail, arguing it presents an undue burden on the right to vote and effectively serves as a poll tax.

In a joint agreement filed Wednesday, state Election Commission officials said they intend to provide prepaid postage on all absentee ballot return envelopes this year, regardless of the number of voters who qualify and take advantage of absentee voting by mail, eliminating the need for any further legal action on the issue.

Shaundra Young Scott, the S.C. Democratic Party's director of voter protection, said the party was pleased with the commission's decision and hopes it will lead to a broader expansion of absentee ballots and vote by mail.

"This is a huge victory for voters as we continue to fight to protect voters' rights during this global pandemic," Young Scott said. "Providing postage would provide confidence to voters that their ballots will be received and counted. This is also a step in the right direction to address long lines on Election Day."

In consultation with Gov. Henry McMaster's office, the Election Commission determined that providing voters and county election officials with postage-paid return envelopes would be "a prudent use of COVID-19 funding," election commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

The cost will depend on the number of voters who choose to cast absentee ballots by mail, but Whitmire said the Election Commission anticipates a price tag in the range of $750,000 to $1.2 million.

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"Postage-paid return envelopes will help ensure every registered voter has the opportunity to vote during the pandemic," Whitmire said.

The election commission decided in mid-May to begin preparing the postage-paid return envelopes and they were ready in time for the June 23 runoff elections, Whitmire added. The envelopes have already been distributed to the counties for the November elections.

Multiple higher-profile legal fights surrounding the upcoming election remain outstanding. 

Before the June 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.

State lawmakers eventually changed the rules to allow all voters to cast absentee ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, but only for the primaries.

Some Democratic state lawmakers attempted to similarly expand absentee voting for the general election during a brief legislative session last month. But Republican leaders rebuffed the efforts, saying they could consider it when they return to the Statehouse again in September instead.

Democrats are also challenging a witness signature requirement on absentee ballots. A federal court ruled in their favor on that issue for the primaries, citing challenges presented by the pandemic, but the party is now back in court looking to achieve the same results for the general election.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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