COLUMBIA — An effort to implement true early voting in South Carolina moved forward Wednesday with approval from a state Senate panel.
The measure unanimously advanced to the Senate Judiciary Committee would set parameters for how the process would be handled, including allowing residents to vote starting 10 days before an election and directing local election officials to set up at least one early voting center in each county.
Similar efforts have been put forth unsuccessfully in the past. In 2011, the state Senate approved a bill creating an 11-day window for early voting. That measure died in the House, which had already rejected early voting efforts that were tied to legislation requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
The photo ID requirement was ultimately successful, although it was subsequently rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice on the basis that it was racially discriminating under the Voting Rights Act. South Carolina challenged that assertion in federal court and won, and the requirement goes into effect in elections this year.
But this legislative year is getting under way just a few months after cascading Election Day problems caused some residents in Richland County, home to South Carolina's capital city, to stand in voting lines for six hours or more.
Lawmakers are mulling legislation that would transfer election management from the non-partisan State Election Commission to the elected Secretary of State, who would lead a board of canvassers. There also is a proposal to allow that body to take over elections in a county if it finds the election board is grossly incompetent – an amendment based on the 2012 election mess in Richland County.
While South Carolina doesn't technically have true early voting, it's fairly easy for people to vote absentee, either by mail or at their county election office weeks before polls open. People must give an excuse for why they can't vote on Election Day, like being on vacation or at work.
But that's not good enough, according to Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters. Teague, who testified Wednesday at a hearing over the proposed legislation, said that some voters don't qualify for absentee voting under current parameters.
And by implementing early voting, Teague said, the state might also be able to avoid the issues that led to a nightmarish Election Day 2012 in Richland County.
“Early voting means lower volume at the polls on Election Day,” said Teague, adding that 32 states currently have some form of “no excuse” early voting. “Early voting saves money for taxpayers.”
In 2012, early 14 percent of all registered voters in South Carolina cast absentee ballots, according to the State Election Commission. In neighboring North Carolina, 60 percent of all votes were cast during early voting, which lasts for more than two weeks and includes weekends.
Officials said early voting there kept lines on Election Day short.