In a legislative body where Republicans control the agenda — and Democrats are left to settle for crumbs — Democrats are learning what happens when they try to ask for more.
Consider an early voting bill pushed by S.C. Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Republican from Horry County.
Democrats have asked for early voting in the state, and Clemmons says he’ll give it to them in a bill that recently passed a key committee and now heads to the full House for debate. But his bill actually restricts more voters from casting ballots early. The bill would do away with the state’s established de facto 30-day early voting process and add restrictions to casting absentee ballots.
Clemmons was the architect of the state’s Voter ID bill and chairs a House subcommittee on election laws.
The South Carolina State Election Commission says South Carolina has de facto early voting because voting in-person absentee without a legitimate reason isn’t technically legal. But early voting has become such a widespread trend nationally and so many people do it here that election officials have basically been looking the other way. There are 18 official excuses voters can offer to vote in-person absentee, and it can be hard for officials to tell if voters are telling the truth about having one.
Recent elections fiascos in the state have turned attention back to early voting. The November election held in Richland County — plagued by long lines, broken machines, too-few poll workers and votes never counted — is remembered as the largest debacle in county elections history.
To fix it, the State Election Commission is calling for lawmakers to enact early voting.
“We support the idea of early voting,” says Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. “The No. 1 reason is that it makes voting easier.”
North Carolina and Georgia both allow early voting and casting absentee ballots without an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All together, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow in-person early voting.
Democrats in particular have been pushing early voting proposals for years.
Bamberg County Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers proposed a bill this year that would allow people to vote 14 to 28 days out from an election. It likely won’t see the light of day.
Instead, it’s Clemmons’ bill that is up for debate. That bill would scrap the state’s 30-day in-person absentee voting period and replace it with a nine-day window of early voting. It also adds restrictions to absentee voting by stripping excuses such as having to work or not being in town. The bill would also require a disabled voter to have a doctor’s note in order to vote excused absentee.
At one point in a recent hearing on the legislation, bill sponsor Clemmons rattled Democrats with a particular comment.
“The general mindset is Democrats use early voting for organization,” Clemmons said, according to The State. “Republicans use early voting for convenience.”
Clemmons’ gutting of in-person absentee voting has incensed Democrats. Sellers described a recent hearing about the bill as tense.
“By taking away in-person absentee balloting, he understands that many African Americans, many Democratic voters, vote in-person absentee, and he’s taking that mechanism away,” Sellers says.
Clemmons says that by allowing a period of no-excuses early voting, his bill would actually expand voting.
The nonpartisan League of Women Voters of South Carolina, which has a long history of working to expand voting rights, is advocating for two weeks of early voting that would include Saturdays and Sundays.
The bill sent to the full House “would ultimately restrict people more than it would open it up,” says the League’s advocacy director Lynn Teague.
Meanwhile, a Senate bill under consideration would establish an eight-day period of open early voting but retain the 30-day period of absentee voting.
The U.S. Department of Justice must pre-clear any changes to South Carolina’s elections laws under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act because of the state’s history of disenfranchising minorities. However, that section of the Act is currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a challenge from a county in Alabama.
Says Sellers about the way changes to early voting laws are being handled here: “I think South Carolina is the epitome of why we need Section Five. Stuff like this.”
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