COLUMBIA - South Carolina election officials are preparing for early voting for the first time in next month's primaries, expanding the ability to vote in an era when many other states are passing laws to make it harder to cast ballots.
Republicans, Democrats and election officials all came together to pass the new law. They predict that more voters will turn out, especially in November, when they learn they can cast ballots for two weeks before Election Day.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster held a ceremonial signing of the bill Wednesday afternoon. He actually put his pen to the act on Friday, a day after the legislation passed, so that local election officials could have as much time as possible to plan for the start of early voting on May 31. South Carolina's primaries are June 14.
"This is a momentous piece of legislation when other states are going a different direction," said Isaac Cramer, executive director of Charleston County's Board of Elections.
The new law is a compromise piece of legislation that Republicans have touted with the motto "easier to vote. - harder to cheat." Democrats agreed to the bill every step of the way.
Polling places will open for regular early voting for two weeks excluding Sundays. Every county has to have at least one polling place, with larger counties considering multiple locations. They have to finalize plans by next week. South Carolina will be the 45th state to allow anyone to vote outside of Election Day without an excuse.
On the security side, absentee ballots would be restricted to mail-in only and for specific excuses, such as voters over age 65, people who are disabled or whose work schedule prevents them from getting to the polls.
The new law makes voter fraud a felony and increases fines and possible jail time for people who try to vote under a false name or vote more than once, or poll managers who intentionally break the law.
The proposal requires audits of at least 5% of all votes in a county in the days after an election.
South Carolina counties received a dry run for early voting in 2020 when lawmakers allowed a hybrid system where anyone could cast an absentee ballot in person at an election office or by mail because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cramer said that has been a big help preparing for early voting this year. Because of the short time period between the General Assembly passing the law and upcoming elections, he thinks at least 4 of 5 votes will still be cast in person for next month's primaries. But he expects early voting to represent about 50% of ballots cast in November's general election.
"Voters are going to want and expect early voting. I think those numbers are just going to keep trending up," Cramer said.
Another benefit to early voting is flexibility. If the numbers are greater in Charleston County than expected, Cramer said he can send more people and voting machines to a location and cut wait times, which is nearly impossible when all polling places are open on Election Day.
And the new law should help produce election results faster, too. Ballots are fed into a scanner immediately after they are cast. The results must be kept secret until the polls close, but those results can be immediately released instead of having to scan in thousands of ballots under the absentee system.
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