Photo by Lauren Hurlock

No Excuse

Not even a global pandemic can force South Carolina politicians out of their old habits of making sure it’s difficult and tedious to vote.

Under emergency measures finally passed last week in the state House of Representatives, it will be ever-so-slightly easier and safer to cast ballots in November. All registered voters will be eligible to vote absentee and local election officials have more latitude to collect and begin tabulating absentee ballots.

As usual, our lawmakers are playing catch-up with election day around the corner, but even the menial steps taken fall short of helping to ensure ballot access. Republicans in the House and Senate rejected measures that could have made this year’s elections even easier and safer, dismissing requests from the state’s top election official who warned voting systems could be overwhelmed without more action by state lawmakers.

“Even under normal circumstances, presidential elections are the ultimate test of any state’s election process,” state Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino wrote to House and Senate leaders on July 30.

Republican senators, including District 99’s Chip Campsen (up for reelection this year), invoked scare-tactic conspiracies earlier this month about absentee voter fraud to reject proposals to suspend an ineffective requirement for absentee ballots to be signed by a witness and to nix proposals allowing for secure, monitored drop boxes at county election offices.

The drop box provision is such a common-sense idea that the State Election Commission was in the process of ordering boxes when the provision was pulled from the proposed law. Instead, ballots will get wedged in residential mail slots and dropped in blue boxes across the state. Or worse, high-risk voters will have to go into cramped county offices to drop their ballots. Great job, everyone.

Thankfully, after the House failed to act last week, U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs threw out the witness signature requirement as she did before the primaries, bailing out at-risk voters and the Republican politicians who wouldn’t dare make it easier to cast ballots.

Unlike the legislature, Childs appeared to understand the extraordinary times in her ruling: “Were it not for the current pandemic, this element may have cut the other way.”

(Editor’s note: On Sept. 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals issued an order that reinstated the signature requirement for S.C. absentee-by-mail voters.)

The fact these partisan fights use existing state election laws as a checklist to determine which oppressive and outdated rules we can do away with is proof enough that our election system needs updating. It’s no surprise the leaders of the Republican-held legislature are squeamish about changing the archaic rules that got them into power.

Risking health and safety to cast ballots is nothing new for too many South Carolina voters. Our state’s history of voter suppression is as rich as its heroes’ demands for civil rights in Charleston and across the state that carry into the present day.

“It’s disgusting,” said S.C. Rep. J.A. Moore, D-Berkeley, on the floor of the House last week. “But what I know, is that the people we’re fighting for, we’re resilient people.”

South Carolina lawmakers can start by making the 2020 election changes permanent. Up next: Same-day voter registration, real early voting and universal mail-in voting.