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Your guide to SC's 2020 primary: What you need to know between now and Feb. 29

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Election 2020 Iowa Poll

Candidates Tom Steyer (from left), Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stand on the stage before a Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa. The 2020 campaigns are quickly shifting their focus to South Carolina's Feb. 29 primary. File/AP

The road to the White House runs through South Carolina, and soon it will break into an all-out sprint.

Voters in the Palmetto State go to the polls in 11 days to determine which candidate they want to continue in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest.

The results could shape, or reshape, the still-crowded race.

After Iowa delivered delayed results and New Hampshire failed to produce a far-and-away front-runner, the leader's title remains wide open ahead of South Carolina's Feb. 29 vote. 

And after Nevada weighs in this weekend, South Carolina is up next.

Whether you're new to the state or just curious about what this moment in the national political spotlight means, here’s everything you need to know about South Carolina 2020.

When is the South Carolina primary?

Polls open at 7 a.m. Feb. 29, a Saturday, and close 12 hours later at 7 p.m.

Unlike other elections that typically take place on a Tuesday, South Carolina's upcoming presidential primary will happen on the weekend. It's intentional, and it's also a political tradition.

When South Carolina Republicans held their first modern-day presidential primary in 1980, state party officials wanted to encourage blue-collar workers to participate. That date stuck for most everyone and not having to take off time from work.

Why does South Carolina matter?

Though South Carolina has voted for a Republican in nearly every presidential election since 1964 (Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the exception), the state's upcoming Democratic presidential primary holds serious political weight for Democrats.

Not only is South Carolina the first Southern state to vote in the presidential nominating process, it is also more representative of the Democratic Party as a whole.

Unlike the mostly-white leadoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina's primary results will show how well candidates are doing among African American voters, an important voting demographic who account for roughly 60 percent of likely Democratic presidential primary voters here.

The state also has the potential to set the stage, since South Carolina votes three days before Super Tuesday on March 3.

That's when California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas and a slew of other states weigh in on who they want to keep running.

What are delegates and why do they matter?

There's a momentum perception at stake, and the winner of the South Carolina primary will get to claim victory ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday contest. But the state-by-state fight is ultimately about winning delegates.

To secure the presidential nomination outright, a candidate needs to win a total of 1,991 delegates. Fifty-four delegates are up for grabs in South Carolina. However, the state does not use a winner-take-all system. 

Instead, delegates are awarded proportionally by congressional district. Any candidate who reaches 15 percent in either the statewide results or in any of the state’s seven congressional districts is guaranteed to earn at least one delegate.

Will there be a debate?

Yes. A Democratic presidential debate will take place in Charleston just days before the South Carolina primary. The Feb. 25 televised debate will be hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. It will take place at the Gaillard Center in Charleston.

Who will be on the debate stage?

The Democratic National Committee on Saturday released the qualifications to get on the Charleston stage.

To guarantee a podium, candidates must receive at least one pledged delegate from any of the first three nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada.

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Candidates can also earn a spot onstage by either receiving at least 10 percent in four national or single-state polls of South Carolina, or receive at least 12 percent support in two single-state polls in South Carolina between Feb. 4 and Feb. 24.

Can I get tickets for the debate?

Not likely. The people who will be seated inside the Gaillard Center will have ties to the presidential campaigns. Tickets will be difficult to come by. Any leftovers are usually given to campaign staffers in the state where the debate is hosted.

In addition to being the last nationally televised debate before the South Carolina primary, the debate will be the last televised back-and-forth opportunity for the candidates before Super Tuesday.

Who can vote in South Carolina's primary?

South Carolina has an open primary system. This means any registered voter may cast a ballot in either party’s primary — but not both. This year, there is only one presidential primary contest. Last year, the state Republican Party’s executive committee opted to forgo holding a GOP 2020 presidential primary.

South Carolina voters also don’t have to register by political party.

When will I start seeing candidates in South Carolina?

According to The Post and Courier's presidential candidate tracker, the remaining candidates in the race have made a combined 184 visits to the state since 2018. Expect that number to increase — and fast.

After Nevada's caucus on Saturday, presidential candidates and their surrogates are expected to to begin descending on South Carolina en masse as they seek to secure last-minute support.

Can I register to vote in the upcoming primary?

The deadline has passed. However, you can check the status of your voter registration at scvotes.org

Can I vote early? 

While South Carolina does not have early voting or same-day voter registration, voters in the Palmetto State can still cast a ballot ahead of time by voting absentee in person or by mail.

To cast a ballot early in person, visit the county voter registration office in your county of residence, complete an application and cast your ballot. Voters will be able to vote absentee in person until 5 p.m. Feb. 28.

Rules for photo ID required to vote at the polling place apply. You do not need a REAL ID to vote in this election.

What will turnout be like?

Primaries typically draw a smaller turnout than a general election contest, but state election officials have said this primary could see greater interest from voters.

The highest voter turnout South Carolina has seen in a presidential preference primary was in 2008, when 43.5 percent of the state's registered voters participated in the Democratic presidential primary, compared to 37.8 percent in the GOP presidential primary.

In 2012, when Republicans had the only presidential preference primary contest in the state, 21.3 percent of voters participated.

Does SC have new voting machines?

This is the first presidential primary in which South Carolina will use its new voting system that contains a paper ballot component. The machines were used in smaller elections last year, but this will be the first time they will be deployed for a statewide contest.

When will we know the winner?

We will start seeing results after polls close at 7 p.m. Usually, we learn first about absentee votes, but after that we expect to see a steady stream of returns. 

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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