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SC Senate called back to ‘protect the voter and the vote’

August 17, 2020 GMT
Senate President Harvey Peeler presides over the state Senate during a special, one-day session of the South Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. This year's session has been paused for several weeks amid the new coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
Senate President Harvey Peeler presides over the state Senate during a special, one-day session of the South Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. This year's session has been paused for several weeks amid the new coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
Senate President Harvey Peeler presides over the state Senate during a special, one-day session of the South Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. This year's session has been paused for several weeks amid the new coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s Senate is coming back into session in two weeks to mull over possible election law updates necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak.

In a news release Monday, Senate President Harvey Peeler said state senators would return Sept. 2 to “make plans to protect the voter and the vote” given that the pandemic continues in the run up to the November general election.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic is still prevalent in our state, the Senate must make plans to protect the voter and the vote,” Peeler said. “We don’t know what the situation will be like in November, but we need to prepare for safe and secure voting.”

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State lawmakers had already been slated to return in mid-September, purportedly to discuss possible election tweaks, among other issues. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said Monday that chamber would stick to its plans to return Sept. 15, not earlier.

Ahead of the state’s June primary elections, state lawmakers in May agreed to several changes including universal absentee voting and a waiver of the witness requirement for absentee ballots. Referencing the “bipartisan manner” in which those issues were handled, Peeler wrote he was “hopeful we can do it again and return later in September to address the remaining legislative business.”

In July, South Carolina Democrats again took legal action to challenge limits on absentee voting for the general election, filing a petition asking the state Supreme Court to take action against Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas, warning that poll workers and voters “are headed for calamity” unless changes are made.

The filing sought adoption of a plan by state election officials — strapped by limited numbers of poll workers willing to man booths on Election Day, and confronted by voters fearful of getting sick while voting — that calls in part for no-excuse absentee voting, eliminates the absentee witness requirement and gives more time for counting absentee ballots.

In subsequent filings, attorneys for Lucas and Peeler asked that the case be dismissed, arguing that election law changes should be handled by legislators, not the courts. In a separate case, a federal judge ultimately struck the witness requirement, but state justices have previously opted not to rule on absentee requirements after lawmakers stepped in to approve changes.

As of Wednesday, South Carolina health officials had recorded more than 105,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, resulting in at least 2,165 deaths across the state.

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State election officials have already been seeking more relief from state lawmakers, who wield control over election-related laws. Last week, Election Commission Director Marci Andino urged Lucas and Peeler to take swift action to safeguard the November election to give elections officials copious time to plan.

In June, some areas including Richland County experienced serious issues on primary day, with some voters waiting in line for hours to cast ballots due to a lack of poll workers and some races not appearing on voters’ lists. Election Commission officials have said they will be focusing more intently on Richland County in future elections.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.