Lauren Hurlock

More South Carolina voters than ever will cast their ballots by mail in the June 9 primary.

Through a twist of a public health emergency, surprisingly quick action by legislators and a little help from federal court, the number of mail-in absentee ballots for the primary will likely eclipse totals from recent presidential elections, state and local officials say.

Charleston County leads the state with 17,896 mail-in absentee ballots issued as of Thursday, already surpassing the total number issued by mail in the 2016 presidential election.

“We expected high numbers for by-mail absentee,” said Joe Debney, the executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Statewide, counties have issued nearly 80,000 mail-in absentee ballots so far, and State Election Commission officials say they see a chance to eclipse the high-water mark set in 2016.

“We could easily surpass the 140,000 record for by-mail ballots,” said Chris Whitmire, an agency spokesman.

In May, S.C. lawmakers fast-tracked a bill that allowed a temporary “state of emergency” qualifier to allow residents to vote by mail to avoid breaking social distancing protocol to stop the spread of COVID-19. A federal court ruling on Memorial Day granted voters another reprieve by waiving requirements for witness signatures on ballots, a security measure the state’s election director Marci Andino said was unverifiable in a March 30 letter to Gov. Henry McMaster and General Assembly leaders.

Voters have until Friday, June 5, to request their absentee ballot by mail, which must be in election officials’ hands — either by mail or dropped off in person — by the end of election day, June 9. (In-person absentee voting and normal election day voting is also available.)

So far more than 1,500 completed ballots are arriving at Charleston’s elections headquarters daily — a figure that will likely go up. Officials are bracing themselves for delays in counting on election night.

“In 2016 when we had 17,000 ballots for the presidential election, absentee results were at two in the morning,” said Isaac Cramer, a project manager for the Charleston board of elections. “I would hope that they would be done before then … but we could see another 5,000-6,000 people request absentee ballots be mailed in the next seven days.”

With expectations of continued COVID-19 impacts and reliance on mail-in voting, Cramer said he hopes that officials will consider how to make the presidential election more manageable.

“I would anticipate our mail numbers to be even more, a record, for November,” Cramer said. “Right now, we’re at over 12,000 applications returned … and it’s June.”

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