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SC House panel considers bill to establish early voting

February 9, 2022 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Lawmakers in South Carolina are considering a bill to establish no-excuse early voting across the state and require people voting by mail to supply a government-issued identification number with their ballot application.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Jay Lucas and backed by nearly 50 other Republican House members, received a hearing Wednesday in front of a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.

“There are some things in here that are amazing and (that) we’ve been asking for, and there are some things that might need some tweaking,” said Isaac Cramer, executive director of Charleston County’s Board of Elections.

Courts and the state legislature adjusted voting rules in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing all voters to vote absentee. More than 1.3 million South Carolinians cast absentee ballots, both in person and by mail, during the general election that year, setting a state record for advance voting.

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The new proposal would make early voting permanent, establishing a two-week period before a general election day during which all voters can cast a ballot in-person. South Carolina law currently lets people vote absentee, either in person by mail, ahead of an election if they have an allowable reason such as being physically disabled or 65 or older.

The bill creates a formula establishing how many early voting locations a county can have based on either the size of its population or geographical area, capping the maximum number of locations at seven. Each location must also be 10 miles (16 kilometers) apart.

But the mandatory distance between locations and restriction on early voting locations would put the state’s largest cities at a disadvantage, disproportionately impacting Black voters, said Josh Malkin with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

The bill would add some requirements for people trying to send ballots in by mail. People requesting a mail ballot would have to provide their driver’s license number or another number from certain forms of government-issued identification, such as a passport or military ID.

Current state law requires mail-in ballot envelopes to be signed by a witness. The bill would stipulate that the witness also print their name.

One addition to the proposal that lawmakers should consider is an avenue for eligible voters whose ballots or applications are rejected to fix whatever errors were made so their votes can count, said Lynn Teague with the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

Jay Jordan, chair of the election laws subcommittee, said the panel would return to the bill and possibly consider some amendments before sending it on to the full Judiciary Committee.

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The full House took up some other election law matters Tuesday, voting 75-39 mostly on party lines to approve Republican-sponsored changes to a bill that passed both the House and Senate in 2021, but in different forms.

That bill bans drop-off boxes for ballots and increases the number of audits the state can perform on elections, allowing them to be performed by third-party companies that specialize in these audits.

The proposal now goes back to the Senate, which can agree to the changes or send it to a small committee of House members and senators to hash out the differences. The Senate is unlikely to approve the changes, since the House removed a Senate change that let it weigh in on the governor’s choices to the State Election Commission and the agency’s executive director.

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Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.