COLUMBIA — Absentee voting in South Carolina is outpacing ballots cast early in the last presidential election, according to the state Election Commission.
Voters have requested 214,400 absentee ballots so far. That’s 25,200 more than voters had requested by Oct. 22, 2008, said agency spokesman Chris Whitmire.
He notes this year’s calendar provides two additional days to vote absentee, since the election falls on Nov. 6.
Fifty-three percent of the requested ballots had been returned by Monday. Mailed ballots can be returned up to 7 p.m. on Election Day, when polls close.
The numbers include both mailed ballots and people voting in-person absentee. Though South Carolina technically does not have early voting, people can vote at their county office if they give an excuse for why they can’t vote on Election Day, such as being on vacation or at work. They can do so through 5 p.m. on Nov. 5.
Winthrop University professor and pollster Scott Huffmon said the higher numbers could be due to the emphasis presidential candidates are putting on early voting in swing states. Who the increase favors in a state considered safe for Mitt Romney is difficult to analyze, he said, since South Carolina voters don’t register by party.
“It may be that coverage of early voting elsewhere is making people more aware of doing absentee voting here,” Huffmon said. “It could just be greater awareness that it’s available.”
In a state where Republicans hold all statewide offices and control both legislative chambers, Mitt Romney is expected to take its nine electoral votes. Arizona Sen. John McCain won the state four years ago with 54 percent of the vote. That was a smaller winning margin than former President George W. Bush, who took 58 percent in 2004 and 57 percent in 2000.
Calling the get-out-the-early-vote effort the “Obama model,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said his party has spent more than $100,000 over the last month to remind people to vote absentee, through emails, phone calls, door-knocking and radio ads. He says Romney’s taking South Carolina for granted.
“Everyone thinks the default position is Republican,” Harpootlian said. “We have a shot.”
Romney hasn’t had a public campaign stop in South Carolina since January’s presidential primary, though he and his wife have each held a fundraiser since, and running mate Paul Ryan is raising money in the state Friday. Obama hasn’t appeared publicly here since his 2008 primary contest, though Michelle Obama visited Fort Jackson last year.
State GOP director Matt Moore says Republicans also have pushed absentee voting in the last month, including a mailer sent to 100,000 households in the new 7th congressional district. Also, he said, more than 10,000 people have visited a state GOP web site promoting absentee voting.
“The SCGOP is taking nothing for granted, as evidenced by our hard work to bring in absentee ballots,” Moore said.
Absentee voting hit a record high in South Carolina in 2008, with more than 342,000 people voting that way, representing 18 percent of ballots cast. Absentee voting accounted for 10 percent of ballots cast in 2004 and 6 percent in 2000.
In 2008, absentee ballots in 39 of South Carolina’s 46 counties favored Obama. The seven counties in which absentees went for McCain were Aiken, Horry, Lexington, Newberry, Oconee, Pickens and York, according to Election Commission data.
So far this year, Charleston County is the top requester of absentee ballots, accounting for 11 percent, followed by Richland County at 10 percent, and Greenville County at 6 percent. In 2008, absentee voting in the state’s three most populous counties all favored Obama: 64 percent of absentees voted for Obama in Charleston County, 71 percent in Richland and 55 percent in Greenville.
As of Monday, 3.5 percent of absentee requests are from military service members and others living overseas.