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SC lawmakers approve expanding absentee voting for November election

The bill still requires a witness signature despite objections from Democratic lawmakers who say that jeopardizes voters’ health and could impede the right to vote.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A measure that would let South Carolinians vote absentee in November without an excuse is now headed to the governor's desk for his signature.  

The House voted 115-1 Tuesday during a special session to approve the rule changes. In short, they agreed with a Senate bill passed earlier this month that allowed anyone to request an absentee ballot without providing a specific excuse. Normally, there is a much narrower list of reasons for voting absentee. 

The bill still requires a witness signature despite objections from many Democratic lawmakers who said it jeopardizes voters’ health, and could impede the right to vote. 

Democratic Representative Kambrell Garvin says, "having no witness requirement and having drop boxes, those are really fundamentally important things in any democratic society. We should be trying to make access to the ballot box easier not harder."

On the other aisle, Republican Representative Adam Morgan says having a witness is important and it "ensures the public’s confidence that the election is not a fraud." Morgan added ballot drop boxes could also possibly lead to voter fraud.

Challengers to the witness provision are already looking for a day in court.

The measure now goes to Gov. Henry McMaster for final approval. A spokesperson McMaster said the governor will sign it.

"The bill strikes a good balance between protecting South Carolinians and the integrity of the voting process," said Brian Symmes, McMaster's Communications Director. 

For June's primary, the state passed a similar rule that allowed for the COVID-19 emergency to be a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.  To be clear, this is not mail-in voting, which is not allowed under South Carolina law.

Last month, South Carolina Elections Commission Executive Director Marci Andino sent a letter to lawmakers, including Peeler, asking for emergency changes to get ready for the general election. She said action must be taken to ensure a smooth election process while also protecting workers and voters at the polls during a pandemic. 

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Andino wrote that similar measures used during June's primary elections must be in place during the November election.  She said if they aren't, absentee mail will be overwhelmed, the number of poll managers won't be enough, and it will be difficult to maintain social distancing in the middle of a pandemic. 

RELATED: Sumter voter registration, absentee ballot requests spike

In South Carolina, turnout in non-gubernatorial statewide primaries averages 16%, while presidential elections average 71%. In the June primaries, absentee ballots by mail went up 370% compared to 2016 (27,000 to 127,000). Those statistics were included in the letter to lawmakers.  

Under state law, the legislature is the only entity that has the authority to make changes to election procedures. Neither the governor nor the State Election Commission can do that on their own.