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SC GOP Senate leader seeks Election Commission oversight

South Carolina Election Laws
Jeffrey Collins/AP
FILE - House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, left, talks to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, right, before a meeting over a Santee Cooper overhaul bill on Tuesday, June, 1, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The chances of having early voting in upcoming elections in South Carolina appears to be dying after the state House and governor accused the Senate of a power grab. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)

The leader of South Carolina's Senate Republicans is warning that failing to create a system for oversight of gubernatorial appointees to the state's elections board could mean catastrophic consequences for the state's future balloting.

"South Carolina held up very well in 2020, but we were very close to being Georgia, and most people don't realize that," Sen. Shane Massey told The Associated Press on Friday, referring to the neighboring state's cascading balloting issues.

Massey spoke with AP a day after the chances of having true early voting in upcoming elections in South Carolina appeared to be near death. Both chambers have unanimously passed a bill that would open polling places for regular early voting for two weeks before elections, excluding Sundays. The bill also would expand state-run audits of voting machines and increase penalties for voter fraud.

After the bill passed the House, the Senate added in a mechanism through which the chamber would be tasked with approving not just the director of the State Election Commission, but also the five members of the board that oversees the agency.

That's something Massey wanted, saying in a statement shared with AP that Republican Gov. Henry McMaster "sat there and did nothing" when lawmakers were furious at the agency during the 2020 election. Officials were then considering ballot drop boxes and eliminating witness signatures on absentee ballots without their approval, allowing Executive Director Marci Andino and Commission members to stay in their roles.

"It doesn't matter how strong you make the laws if the entity that's supposed to enforce them isn't going to do that job," Massey said Friday.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the agency is not taking a position on the Senate bill.

It's that measure, though, that threatens to derail the overall package, with the governor and House GOP leaders accusing Massey of a power grab. Unless changes are made, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said the bill will be sent back to committee, which would likely kill the measure for the session, which ends in three weeks.

House Speaker Jay Lucas laid blame on Massey, whom he said "chose to unnecessarily increase his own power rather than take concrete steps to make South Carolina's elections the most secure in the United States."

On Twitter, McMaster called it "unfortunate that some Senate Republicans were misled by the majority leader and Democrats and rejected a common sense compromise in order to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in SC."

"If this bill doesn't become law, the voters will know who to blame and why," he added, also telling at least one senator he would veto the bill if changes weren't made.

The friction between Massey and McMaster, both Republicans, is nothing new. In late 2020, after Massey launched an effort seeking oversight for the governor's emergency declarations amid the coronavirus pandemic, there was speculation the 46-year-old from Edgefield might mount a primary challenge to the governor, who faces voters this year.

McMaster ultimately voiced support for a measure that would have put such guardrails in place, but it fizzled out.

On Friday, Massey that he felt attacks from both the governor and House lawmakers are at least in part politically motivated. They will all face voters this fall, while state senators are not up for reelection until 2024.

"I am not all that interested in fighting with Republicans," Massey told AP on Friday when asked about the conflicts with McMaster. "But I also don't like the idea of, 'Let's pass something so we can tell everybody that we've addressed it.'"

The governor, House and Senate leadership are all Republicans, although the governor and House often align, leaving the Senate on its own, like differing on proposals to raise teacher pay or cut taxes.

"Somebody has to ensure liberal activists are not running our state election commission and jeopardizing our elections," Massey said. "If Gov. McMaster is not going to do it, the Senate will."


Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.