SC early voting bill gets unanimous, bipartisan support
In a time where debates over elections and voting end up in partisan arguments, Democrats and Republicans in the South Carolina General Assembly are trying to come together to expand early voting in this conservative state.
The state Senate unanimously gave the proposal key approval Wednesday. The bill unanimously passed the House in early March.
But there may be one big snag between Republicans. Gov. Henry McMaster and House leaders aren't happy that senators added a provision giving them power to confirm the governor's choices for not just the director, but also the five members of the board of the South Carolina Election Commission.
After the routine final approval Thursday, the bill goes back to the House, which seems unlikely to accept the Senate's changes. That means the bill will go to a small conference committee of senators and House members to try to work out a compromise.
Lawmakers are trying to get the new rules in place for the statewide primaries on June 14.
The key to bipartisan support to the bill was compromise. It opens polling places for regular early voting for two weeks before elections, excluding Sundays. And it also expands state-run audits of voting machines and ballot counting after elections and increases penalties for voter fraud.
"Make it easier to vote and harder to cheat," said state Sen. Chip Campsen, a Republican from the Isle of Palms.
The Senate debated for over five hours, discussing and eventually rejecting whether to have people register to vote by political parties if they wish, cutting the early voting period to a week or eliminating the ability of all people over age 65 to vote absentee.
But senators did not waver on their insistence they get approval power over the governor's selections for the elections board even as several of them warned they were told by the governor he would veto the bill with that provision in it.
McMaster on Twitter didn't go that far. But he said senators were misled by Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey and Democrats on a "common sense compromise." His staff said the proposal doesn't allow the governor to even make temporary appointments for the board when the Senate isn't in session after May, when both primaries and the general election happen.
"If this bill doesn't become law, the voters will know who to blame and why," McMaster said.
Massey said the Senate gets to approve plenty of other appointments by the governor and elections should be no different. He talked at length about how he was unhappy with how former Election Commission Director Marci Andino handled the 2020 election during the pandemic overstepping what the legislature that writes the election laws wanted her to do.
Sen. Sandy Senn said the Senate shouldn't bow to threats from the House or governor either. "If we give in, every time the house and governor want to team up, we lose," the Charleston Republican said.
The biggest change in the bill would be to make South Carolina the 45th state to allow anyone to vote outside of Election Day without an excuse.
The state would have two weeks of early voting with polls open Monday through Saturday.
For many years, South Carolina has allowed people to cast absentee ballots in person, but they had to include an excuse for why they couldn't be at the polls on Election Day. Under the proposal, the state would go back to mail-in absentee ballots.
The bill also would make voter fraud a felony, increasing fines and possible jail time for people who try to vote under a false name, 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.