Sam Spence file photo

Charleston County has already exceeded the number of absentee mail ballots it saw in 2018 for the June primary as voters ready to exercise democracy amid a pandemic.

But while South Carolina state law mandates voters must have one of a limited list of excuses to vote early or vote by mail, avoiding a pandemic is not on the list.

The Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration has been working on this issue for years, lobbying the state government to allow no-excuse absentee and mail-in voting. Now, it’s an idea that the State Election Commission, a few Democratic lawmakers, and the S.C. Association of Registration and Election Officials are asking Gov. Henry McMaster to consider for the upcoming June primaries and November general election.

The only authority on elections McMaster has exercised so far is postponing elections in March and April to a future date. He has said recently that he does not intend to postpone the June primary. Whether he has the authority to expand absentee voting options in the state may be decided by lawyers, some say. McMaster’s office has not responded to an email request seeking comment for this story.

Charleston County typically handles 2,300 mail ballots in the June primaries, the requests were more than 2,800 by the end of March, according to Joe Debney, executive director of the Charleston County elections board.

Some voters have tried to cite the pandemic as a reason for their ballot request, according to County Election Project Manager Isaac Cramer, but since that’s not a listed reason, his office points to the list of excuses allowed.

“Usually some people can fit in one of these categories but some of these people have lost their jobs so working is not an excuse,” Board Project Director Isaac Cramer says, adding that he encourages all people over the age of 65 to request absentee-by-mail ballots.

To vote by mail in South Carolina under existing rules, voters call their county voter office, request an absentee ballot, and then must receive and send back an application to obtain that ballot, Cramer said. If a voter qualifies, he or she can request absentee ballots for all elections later in the year, too.

If no-excuse absentee voting was enacted in the state, voters would likely still need to request ballots. Debney says they would also need to be able to track the ballots to the voter and back to the election office, and verify voter signatures.

State Election Commission Public Information Director Chris Whitmire said he is unsure what authority the governor will have in helping people vote in June and November as the virus sweeps through the state. The state legislature has included $15 million to be used at the governor’s discretion to help voters and poll workers stay safe at the polls — but that money has been held up in a squabble between the House and the Senate.

“(The funding) will go a long way toward helping us conduct elections amidst the coronavirus pandemic. However we still have the question of whether we can conduct elections any different than what is prescribed by law,” Whitmire said. “We’re looking at things we can do under our current structure, which is doing things to protect poll managers and voters (using masks, sanitizing wipes, styluses for the screen).”

SEC Director Marci Andino has asked the governor for more authority in expanding early voting to keep lines down and protect poll workers.

Lynn Teague, vice president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, said her organization supports no-excuse early voting, counting ballots early, expanding absentee voting options and opening mail-in ballots to every person that requests them. She said there are also concerns for poll workers who tend to be elderly and “firmly within the danger zone” for contracting a deadly form of COVID-19.

“Are they going to sign up for $100 to sit there for 12 hours while everybody from the neighborhood comes in and shares germs with them?” Teague said.

At the Statehouse, three Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to McMaster in late March to ask for an expansion of absentee voting, to allow for no excuses.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a bipartisan effort on this,” Columbia Democratic Rep. Beth Bernstein said. The letter was signed by her, Sumter Democratic Sen. Thomas McElveen, and Charleston Democratic Rep. Leon Stavrinakis. “We need to be prepared for June at a minimum … We can’t just sit here and not do anything.”

Debney said his work on the issue of expanding absentee voting options is “nonpartisan.”

“What we want to do is allow everyone who is duly registered to vote to vote, and have safeguards in place so there is no fraud,” he said.

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