Deadline looms for S.C. voters

Ashley Hall students Mariana Hay, left, and Lily Greenberg register to vote Thursday in the prep school's cafeteria. People who will be 18 before the upcoming election may register to vote and participate in GOP presidential primary.

Drives, campaigns boost registration

BY ROBERT BEHRE

Courtleigh Watson of Summerville won't turn 18 until April, but she learned a month ago that she could be eligible to vote in next month's presidential primary.

"I thought I'd have to wait until the regular election," she said Thursday, sporting a new "I registered to vote today" sticker. She said she's leaning toward supporting Sen. Barack Obama; she attended his rally in Columbia with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday.

Lily Greenberg, 17, said she is leaning toward former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I've seen how he's dealt so well with being mayor of New York City and with 9/11. I just think he'd be a really good president."

They were among more than 20 Ashley Hall students who registered to vote during their lunch hour Thursday. The Charleston League of Women Voters held the drive just two days after registering 63 students at Porter-Gaud.

For those who still haven't registered, time is running out.

Those planning to vote in the Jan. 19 Republican presidential primary must register by Wednesday.

Anyone wanting to vote in the Democratic presidential primary has until Dec. 26 to register, but county registration offices will be closed after Dec. 21 (voter registration applications sent by mail will be accepted if they are post marked on or before Dec. 26).

The good news is that because of help from campaigns and voter registration drives, the number of registered voters is ticking up. Already, 75 percent of South Carolinians of voting age are on the books — more than the number registered in any of the last three presidential election years.

In Charleston, between 400 and 600 applications have trickled in every week since November, said Marilyn Bowers, director of the Board of Elections and Voter Registration Director.

Chris Whitmore, public information coordinator for the State Election Commission, said he expects the number of registered voters to keep climbing through next fall's general election.

"As we move forward into 2008 and get closer to the 2008 presidential election and as the interest and the attention on this presidential election increases, there will be an increased desire of people to register," he said.

For a state that has ranked near the national cellar in terms of voter participation, that's good news.

"That's our big challenge: Getting folks to register," said Steve Skardon of the Palmetto Project, a nonprofit that works for voter participation. "What we do very well with in South Carolina is that once people are registered, we tend to be pretty good about getting them to vote."

Mary Horres of the League of Women Voters helped out during Thursday's drive at Ashley Hall and said students are excited about the prospect of casting their first vote.

South Carolina is one of only 10 states that lets 17-year-olds vote in primaries provided they turn 18 by the general election date (which next year will be Nov. 4, 2008).

"One student said, 'At least in the primary you get to vote for the candidate of your choice.' That doesn't always happen in the general election," she said. "Research shows the earlier you get someone voting, the more apt they are to vote later on."

Unlike some other states, South Carolina doesn't require voters to choose a party when they register. Voters here only choose a primary when they vote. Anyone who casts a ballot in the Jan. 19 Republican presidential primary won't be allowed to vote in the Jan. 26 Democratic primary.

Those who have moved and need to update their registration information can stop by their county voter registration office or download a Voter Registration Update form from the voter information section at www.scvotes.org and then fill it out or mail it in.

They also can update their information on the back of their current voter registration card and mail it to their county voter registration office (if they still live in the same county).

Anyone registering for the first time can send an application in by mail, but not by fax.

"If you're registering for the first time, we have to have the original document, what they call a 'wet signature,' " Bowers said.

Meanwhile, the presidential voting already has begun. Charleston County alone has sent out about 1,000 absentee ballots.

Caroline Howell and Mariana Hay, both 17, also took just a few minutes to register Thursday and got a chance to inspect a voting machine. They then returned to lunch and the rest of their school day.

Voter registration rising in S.C.

Year Percent registered *

1996 66

2000 73

2004 71

2007 75

* Based on the number registered compared to the state's over-18 population (does not exclude those ineligible to register because of mental illness or a criminal past.)

HOW TO REGISTER

IN PERSON AT YOUR LOCAL VOTER REGISTRATION OFFICE

Berkeley County: 6 Belt Drive in Moncks Corner — 719-4056.

Charleston County: 4367 Headquarters Road in North Charleston — 744-8683

Colleton County: 115A Benson St. in Walterboro — 549-2842.

Dorchester County: 201 Johnston St. in St. George and its Summerville offices — 563-0132 or 832-0132.

BY MAIL

Pick up forms at your voter registration office, local DMV office or state public assistance agencies or download a form from www.scvotes.org. Once the form is filled out, it must be postmarked by Wednesday, Dec. 19 (to qualify for the Republican primary) or Dec. 26 (to qualify for the Democratic primary).