By Lynn Teague
An early voting bill, H.4919, will be heard in the House Election Laws Subcommittee on Wednesday, Feb. 9, after adjournment of the House. The bill’s two-week early in-person voting period for all qualified electors is very welcome, but it also includes some very problematic provisions.
The greatest issue is that the General Assembly is once more trying to micro-manage local government by dictating the locations of early polling places. Their formula establishing the overall number of polling places in a county based on both population and geography is fine. However, they didn’t stop there. The bill requires that early polling places include the county election office, and that no early polling location be within 10 miles of another.
This 10-mile limit would lead to very disproportionate numbers of voters attempting to use single polling places in urban centers. Richland County, for example, would be forced to accommodate up to several hundred thousand voters in Columbia’s one location – the Harden Street election office, where space, parking, and access are problematic. Other polling places would be as far away as Hopkins. The numbers of voting-age persons within the 10-mile radius around the election offices in Richland, Charleston and Greenville counties is more than 200,000 each. While some city voters might migrate out to Hopkins or Hollywood or Fountain Inn to vote, the central urban polling places would be badly stressed. Further, the state’s largest minority communities would be within the areas most affected by overcrowding and its attendant impediments to voting.
The bill further requires that applications for absentee ballots include voter identification numbers that can be taken from a range of government issued photo identifications, from passports to military identifications. However, election offices have no access to the databases of most of these numbers, so they cannot be verified. This provision would simply lead to ballots being discarded if the number is absent. On the other hand, Texas has attempted a badly designed system of verifying ID numbers on absentee ballot applications that has led to discarding high percentages of applications (20-50%). It is important that South Carolina not follow in that state’s footsteps. In the absence of any evidence that there is a real problem to be solved, this provision should be deleted, because it would harm qualified electors without providing any added election security.
Finally, South Carolina should have “notice and cure” for absentee ballots, so that voters are notified if their absentee application or absentee ballots are found defective. Voters should be aware of and able to correct deficiencies so that their votes are counted. After all, this would simply allow the greatest number of qualified electors to fulfill their civic responsibility in the way dictated by the General Assembly.
There are many other provisions of interest, which can be explored at https://www.scstatehouse.gov/billsearch.php?billnumbers=4919. Anyone who would like to let the House Election Laws Subcommittee know their thoughts on this bill should email them as soon as possible at HJudElectionLaws@schouse.gov. We need accessible and secure elections that are fair to all.
Lynn Teague is a retired archaeologist who works hard every day in public service. She is the legislative lobbyist for the South Carolina League of Women Voters.