Election officials continue push for early voting

mprabhu@thesunnews.comOctober 6, 2012 

— South Carolina is one of 18 states in the country that does not allow in-person early voting, but election officials have been working to change that.

“We’ve been trying to get something passed in South Carolina for years,” said Sandy Martin, director of the Voters Registration and Election Department for Horry County. “It would ease up the lines on election day if people were able to vote early and without a reason.”

In 32 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter is able to cast a ballot during a designated period prior to Election Day with no excuse or justification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

South Carolina allows residents who meet one of a number of criteria, such as those with disabilities or plan to be on vacation on Election Day, to vote absentee. But with record absentee ballots cast in the 2008 election – upward of 350,000 – it is believed that many use the option as their own form of early voting, according to S.C. State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

“In 2008, voters cast more than twice the number of absentee ballots than in any previous election. We saw that as South Carolinians’ desire for early voting,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire said the election commission has supported several different versions of early voting legislation dating back to 2009, but the bills have never been able to pass.

He said early voting makes it easier for voters to cast their ballots and makes election administration easier.

“It relieves some of the pressure from Election Day by spreading the voters over multiple days and perhaps even weeks instead of just one day,” he said.

Leaders from Horry County’s Democratic and Republican parties agreed that in-person early voting would benefit residents.

Horry County Democratic Party Chairwoman Doris Potter Hickman said she would love it if voters could cast their ballots early.

“Some people who are voting wouldn’t wait until the last minute, so the lines wouldn’t be as long,” she said. “It would be an excellent way to help facilitate the process.”

But Horry County Republican Party Chairwoman Johnnie Bellamy said the cost of early voting is a concern.

“It would probably be more expensive to have the staffing available. It’s quite costly to have another day or afternoon of voting,” she said. “Maybe in stronger economic days it would be nice to have an extra day.”

Whitmire argued that any increase in running a polling center would be offset due to the number of people expected to take advantage of early voting. He envisions staffing a few polling centers in high-population areas throughout each county that could be open for 10 to 14 days before Election Day.

“[The cost] would likely be a wash because the more people who vote early, the fewer people you have to staff on Election Day,” he said. “Could it cost more to do early voting? It’s possible. But it isn’t an enormous cost to implement early voting.”

There are a few concerns about early voting other than the logistics and cost, said Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It disrupts the civil experience of voting,” Bowser said. “Some people really like that – seeing all of their neighbors at the polls.”

She said some candidates also worry from a campaign finance perspective, saying they traditionally hold a sum of money to a last minute campaign push making it harder for them to spread that money out during the early voting period.

Throughout the country though, she said, the trend has been to allow people to vote early.

“It makes it really convenient. With work schedules and family commitments it’s sometimes hard to find the time to vote,” Bowser said. “[It’s popular] mainly because the voters really like it.”

Contact MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_MPrabhu.

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