Were you one of the many South Carolinians who stood in line to vote early this election, only to be told that our state doesn't have early voting?
If you were confused about how you couldn't vote early but could vote "in-person, absentee ballot" — provided you had one of 15 excuses to qualify — you weren't alone. Even our election officials don't always agree on protocol. South Carolina's voting laws are a hodge-podge of inconsistent rules that are interpreted and enforced by 46 independent county election directors.
Our voting system traces its roots to the constitution of 1895, which effectively codified Jim Crow laws that made it nearly impossible for black men to vote. Women couldn't vote until 1921. For more than a century, South Carolinians have been required to register to vote 30 days before an election. The rules were enacted at a time when horses were used to deliver the ballots to the county seat — way before telephones, the Internet or even Strom Thurmond.
Ben Tillman's constitution established the county boards of elections we are still using. The governor appoints "discrete electors" to determine who votes and how in each county, some nominated by county councils, others by legislative delegations. There is no consistency in how they run their counties' voting systems.
On the last day of voter registration this year, two counties were not open, 12 advised voters to call them to find out their hours, and the rest closed anywhere between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. When the ACLU's Voting Rights Project called the state's 46 county offices in August to survey them on how an ex-offender would go about registering, six said the applicants simply needed to sign the voter registration application, 36 said they had to bring in paperwork showing their sentences had been completed, one said they couldn't ever vote again, and the rest were unsure.
There is no law requiring ex-offenders to prove they have finished their sentence in order to vote, but when pressed by the S.C. Progressive Network, the State Election Commission said it was up to counties to determine how they handle the registrations of the 18,000 ex-offenders a year who are eligible to vote.
It's evident we need better clarity and consistency. While we have good people running our county election boards, we have been patching up a system that is antiquated and flawed. It's time for an overhaul, and perhaps the best place to start is by offering early voting.
South Carolina is one of only 13 states that require an excuse to vote early. Eight states allow voters to register on Election Day, and voters there turn out in greater numbers. Voters in North Carolina can register and vote at one-stop voting centers from the third Thursday to the last Saturday before the election. In Georgia, voters can vote beginning Sept. 22, no excuses required. Citizens of 32 other states can vote early without an excuse.
South Carolina's system increased waiting time this year by requiring each voter to give a poll worker an acceptable reason for voting early. The poll workers had to print out a form and get the voter to sign an application for an absentee ballot. This election, with its unprecedented turnout, resulted in elderly and disabled voters who were legitimately taking advantage of early voting having to stand in lines waiting at times more than four hours.
On Election Day, the most frequent complaints that came into the S.C. Election Protection Hotline that the Progressive Network helped staff were from voters who had ID problems or were told they weren't on the rolls. If voters had a three-week window to vote, they would have had time to address their problems. More votes would be cast and counted, and Election Day would be a lot less hectic — for voters as well as poll workers.
These are among the reasons the S.C. Association of Registrars and Electors named
no-excuse early voting as its legislative priority in the coming year. Election officials can do a better job of making sure every eligible voter gets to cast a vote that counts if they don't have to do it in a single 12-hour day.
There is no excuse to continue using this antiquated and cumbersome system. The network and the Legislative Black Caucus will introduce legislation this coming session for early voting centers, among other remedies to improve voting procedures and turnout. The bill will allow counties to establish multiple no-excuse voting sites three weeks prior to elections.
Getting this bill passed and implemented will require a partnership with county election officials, county councils, legislators and voting-rights advocates.
It is past time for no-excuse early voting in South Carolina.Mr. Neal represents Richland and Sumter counties in the S.C. House; Mr. Bursey is director of the S.C. Progressive Network. Details of their legislative proposals are at
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