By Susanna Clark
This past May, the governor of South Carolina signed a new bill into law that made changes to early voting, both in-person and absentee, and election crimes. The bill was a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. After some back and forth between the House and Senate and the two parties, the bill passed unanimously. It should be noted that both the South Carolina House and Senate are controlled by Republicans by a significant margin, 80-43 and 30-16, respectively, so moderate Republicans may have been standing with Democrats in enacting a less restrictive law—effectively forcing a bipartisan effort. Either way, when compared to other Republican-controlled states, this law appears to be much less restrictive.
Lawmakers have stated that the goal of the bill was to increase election integrity in the state. House Speaker Jay Lucas said the bill would “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in South Carolina.” The bill was signed into law less than a month before the primary election on June 14, and due to the new early-voting provisions, voters were able to cast their ballots just two weeks after the bill passed. It is unclear whether this created confusion for voters or election officials, since the bill was passed so close to an election; the lack of news reports related to voter confusion caused by the bill suggest that it was not likely an issue. Confusion can likely be avoided by making the new provisions widely available to the public, and ensuring that election officials are properly briefed on the new legislation.
One of the major changes is that an in-person two-week early voting period replaces an in-person absentee voting, which is now done by mail. This means that there is an in-person voting period prior to Election Day and absentee voting by mail for those who cannot vote during the available time. This would operate like Election Day voting–voters can only vote in their respective counties and must bring a form of photo identification This ID requirement dates back to 2013. The hours and locations differ slightly, based on whether it is for a general, primary, or runoff election. Absentee voting is still available, but it is now done through the mail. Requested ballots will be received by mail, but completed ballots can be dropped off in-person to a county election office or mailed in. Voters must meet at least one of the requirements listed in order to receive an absentee ballot and must request an absentee ballot. They are not automatically sent to voters who meet one of the requirements unless they are active military personnel, are disabled, or are over 65. Voters also must be absent from their residence for the entire 12-day early voting period in order to obtain an absentee ballot. The bill also bans ballot drop boxes, which had been proposed in 2020 as a response to the pandemic, but never implemented.
The early voting measures intend to make it easier to vote, but there is also a significant provision intended to enhance election integrity. The bill effectively increases five election law violations to felonies. Punishments include a fine of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison, which are increased from the punishments before this new law. Some of these violations include fraudulently voting, aiding in fraudulent voting, and requesting or returning more than five absentee ballots in addition to your own. While those convicted of a misdemeanor cannot vote while incarcerated, this measure is significant because those convicted of felonies in South Carolina cannot vote while incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. These punishments do not necessarily make it more difficult to cheat, but they likely deter people from cheating and effectively decrease rates of fraud. Based on an assessment done by Bloomberg News, which takes into account the new law, South Carolina does not score particularly well in the “ease of voting” category, but it does score well in the “ballot security” category, which is the major goal of the bill.
Overall, South Carolina’s new law does not appear overly restrictive, but it definitely is part of a recent trend by states to amend their voting laws in response to the 2020 election, whether by making voting easier, or more difficult, usually depending on which political party is in control. So far, there have not been any legal challenges to the new law, but there has been criticism that it unnecessarily restricts access to voting.