SC House unanimously passes election reform legislation

Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 8:04 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2022 at 4:25 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - For the second time in a week, applause filled the South Carolina House of Representatives chamber as members voted unanimously to advance a major piece of legislation.

The House advanced a substantial election reform bill in a 114-0 vote on Wednesday, a week after they voted by a 110-0 margin to pass significant tax cuts.

“This is a very, very important piece of legislation, and y’all, it is a bipartisan piece of legislation,” Rep. John King, D – York, said on the House floor during the multi-hour debate.

“It important when we do election law that we make sure elections are done properly and securely but also that people trust our system, and hopefully a vote like that, of 114-0, shows the trust that both parties and both ends of the ideological spectrum, that they both agree that these are needed changes, so hopefully that increases our confidence that our voters have in our system,” Rep. Brandon Newton, R – Lancaster and one of the bill’s sponsors, said after the vote.

The bill, H.4919, would require every county to offer two weeks of in-person early voting six days a week before an election — Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. — or as soon as possible for a run-off, and people would not need a reason or an excuse to vote early in person, as they do now.

The number of early voting sites that each county would be required to open would depend on its number of registered voters and square mileage, with counties having up to seven locations.

The proposed changes come after a record number of South Carolinians voted early in the 2020 general election, when the state offered the option because of the pandemic.

“We’re one of six states that didn’t allow early voting, and our voters have been crying out for early voting,” Newton said.

People who vote absentee by mail would still need a reason, such as if they are 65 and older, deployed in the military, or physically disabled, and they would also have to include the last four digits of their Social Security number on their ballot application as a security measure.

The bill also gives election workers more time to count those ballots.

“We’re updating our system to a modern system while also cleaning up a lot of holes that have been there for a long time,” Newton said.

In the midst of debate came a push from the House’s more conservative members to add an amendment that would abolish open primaries, only allowing registered members of a political party to be able to vote in that party’s primary.

“This is simple: Republicans should nominate Republicans, and Democrats should nominate Democrats,” Rep. RJ May, R – Lexington, said in proposing the amendment.

The measure was ultimately voted down in a bipartisan fashion. Some members who opposed the amendment argued it would effectively disenfranchise voters in races in which only candidates from one party were running.

“We are better when we are willing to come together across lines than when we balkanize ourselves into districts and ideas that are so ideologically homogenous,” Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R – Richland, said.

The bill was amended Wednesday to increase penalties for voter fraud and to require 5% of ballots in every county be audited by a hand count after statewide general elections.

After a perfunctory third reading in the House on Thursday, the legislation next heads to the Senate for its consideration.

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