CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The State Elections Commission informed Charleston County Elections officials that consolidating multiple precincts into one polling place is not permitted under state law, according to a series of letters between the state and county.
Yet assigning several precincts to a single polling location has been a widespread practice since at least 1982.
The ongoing discussions between the state and Charleston County started in January 2019, spurred by complaints about long lines at Charleston County polling places during the 2018 General Election.
“After looking into the matter, the SEC found the widespread consolidation of precincts not permitted by law,” the initial letter from the SEC to the Charleston County Board of Registration and Elections said.
Charleston County had only 94 polling places for 182 precincts in 2018, the letter added. Sometimes as many as eight precincts were assigned to one polling place.
According to the list currently on its website, Charleston County has 170 precincts (areas of voters) and 86 polling places right now.
The problem, according to the SEC, was that there were anywhere from 1,746 to 9,737 registered voters assigned to a single voting location; state law generally allows 1,500 registered voters per location, said SEC Executive Director Marci Andino in a letter.
St. Johns High School, for example, had 8,987 registered voters assigned. Grace on the Ashley Church had 7,297 registered voters assigned. Both locations had major problems with long lines in 2018.
“Charleston County is on another level when it comes to this [consolidation] practice,” said SEC Director of Public Information Chris Whitmire.
He said lines during the 2018 midterm elections were unacceptably long and more than just an inconvenience to voters.
“These were not normal wait times. We're talking about four-hour wait times,” Whitmire said of some locations. “Come to find out, this isn't the first time that unreasonably long wait times have occurred at these polling places.”
“[Consolidation] is something that’s gone on in Charleston County for decades,” said Charleston Election Board Chairperson Christine Varnado. She said 38% of Charleston County voters are in a consolidated precinct.
Varnado doesn’t think consolidated precincts are the problem; she blames a lack of poll workers and equipment for the problems in 2018. She explained that in a response letter to the SEC in May this year.
“Based on our experience during the 2018 General Election and the following investigation,” Varnado wrote, “We have determined that the cause of long lines at certain locations was due to a lack of poll workers in the face of higher than normal voter participation.”
Plus, Varnado added, they consulted legal counsel who believed the state “misread the statutory language” about the county’s authority to consolidate precincts.
The SEC responded saying, “Voters are being forced to stand in long lines, sometimes for numerous hours, to cast their ballot which can to voters being disenfranchised.” The Commission directed the county to take immediate steps to remedy the situation.
The SEC then requested an opinion from the Attorney General in July 2019.
A POLLING PLACE PER PRECINCT
In August 2019, the Attorney General weighed in with a six-page legal analysis and opinion.
The AG’s office agreed with the SEC and said state law indicates there should be a polling place in each precinct.
Varnado told Live 5, “From a logistical standpoint, it would be virtually impossible in Charleston County to do that.”
Especially, she said, in rural areas where they just don’t have enough buildings to choose from.
She explained that in order to add a new polling place to the county’s roster, building owners must first agree to open up to the public, possibly multiple times a year if there is a special election.
There has to be enough parking, safe lighting, access to roads, public transit and walkways, and voting locations must be ADA compliant for voters with disabilities.
“A couple of locations that could have worked, they’ve turned us down,” Varnado said.
The SEC is sympathetic to those concerns and the time it takes to add suitable polling places. “There needs to be some resolution to it eventually, but you can't just wave a wand tomorrow and say okay now every precinct has its own polling place,” Whitmire said. “But we think we can address two. We think that's within everyone's reach.”
Those two? Grace on the Ashley and St Johns High.
State law generally limits a polling place to 1,500 registered voters.
Grace on the Ashley had 7,297.
St Johns High had 8,987.
Whitmire added, “This is affecting turnout in the precinct. People perhaps are seeing those lines and not voting.”
ONE YEAR OUT FROM THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
“We take our elections very seriously. We take our responsibility very seriously. In terms of disenfranchisement – that is the harm that you absolutely must avoid,” said Varnado.
For Election Day 2019, she said Charleston County recruited more poll workers and borrowed equipment from other counties.
In a second response to the SEC, Varnado outlined current efforts and explained what their investigations of St. Johns High and Grace on the Ashley revealed.
But it’s the 2020 presidential election officials are most concerned about.
The state is insisting on seeing changes in Charleston County before then.
“We're all on the same page now. That needs to be resolved so everyone is in line with state law,” Whitmire said.
“We are working hard to find additional locations and are actively speaking to potential locations for those affected areas. We hope to be able to deconsolidate some of those locations prior to the 2020 Presidential Election,” said Joseph Debney, Executive Director of Charleston County’s Elections.
Charleston County is not the only area with consolidated precincts. The state is just focused on the problems here because of how many people are impacted. But they will likely have to address the problem statewide eventually.