CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - “Monumental” is the word Charleston County Elections Executive Director Joe Debney used to describe this year’s election.
“This is the biggest election we’ve ever prepped for,” Debney said. “We’ve sent out more than 60,000 absentee ballots. We’ve gotten about half of those back.”
On the first day of early voting this week, he said 5,500 hundred voters showed up in person. His hope is those early and absentee options help alleviate lines on Nov. 3.
“If as many people continue to vote as they have been doing, election day may be really simple for most folks,” Debney said.
And simple is how it should be, according to the State Elections Commission.
Last year we first showed you a series of letters from the state to Charleston County Board of Elections emphasizing that long lines during the 2018 midterm elections were unreasonable and unacceptable.
The state attorney general said the sometimes-4-hour wait times could “could disenfranchise voters.”
At the time, Chris Whitmire with the State Elections Commission told us, “These were not normal wait times... Come to find out this isn’t the first time that unreasonably long wait times have occurred at these polling places.”
The state claimed the problems were due to a history of “consolidated precincts” in Charleston County, meaning voters from different precincts all sharing the same polling place on election day.
Plenty of other counties have consolidated precincts, too.
The AG said according to state law there should be a polling place in each precinct. We found out 38% of Charleston County voters were in a consolidated precinct.
Two of the biggest problem places were Grace on the Ashley and St Johns High. State law limits a polling place to around 1,500 registered voters. Grace on the Ashley had 7,297. St Johns High had 8,987.
Debney says they focused on fixing those two spots for this year’s election.
“They’ve been split, so some of those voters will still remain at Grace on the Ashley and St Johns and the other voters will go to a new location hopefully making it easier for that group of folks," he said.
This year, Debney said Charleston County has 182 precincts of voters at 96 polling locations. (Click here to find your polling place and sample ballot)
Carter Coyle asked, “When it comes to consolidated precincts, the state has said in a perfect world, they want to see one polling location in every single precinct. Do you see that being a possibility in Charleston County?”
“No, I don’t,” Debney said. “And unfortunately, it’s because of how our precincts are drawn. Some precincts it’s simply - unless we put it in someone’s house - there’s no building it can go into. I don’t think we’ll ever see it that way. What we’ll continue to do is evaluate every location after every election to make sure voters can get in and out easily and that they don’t have absurd wait times.”
Finding new polling places is hard, they said. First, building owners have to be willing to open up to the public.
There has to be enough parking & safe lighting. They need access to roads, public transit and walkways, and voting locations must be ADA compliant for voters with disabilities.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly adds a new challenge. Election leaders ask all voters to wear a mask and socially distance.
“Sometimes that line might look long because you are spaced out 6 feet apart,” Debney pointed out. “But just get in line. We’re going to facilitate and move people through as quickly as possible.”
Debney also said they have more than 1,000 poll workers signed up this year in Charleston County, a record for the county. He said they’ve noticed a lot of younger people stepping up for that role as older folks may be higher risk during the pandemic and can’t work the polls this year.