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Changes to SC’s absentee voting by mail cause confusion ahead of primary election

Published: Jun. 2, 2022 at 6:48 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 2, 2022 at 10:29 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The new election law Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed last month put significant changes in place for absentee voting by mail in South Carolina.

While some changes will take effect at later dates, many are in place now for the June primaries, and they are also already causing some confusion with South Carolina voters.

“It’s just extra steps, making it more difficult,” Martha Pressley-Turner of Richland County said.

Pressley-Turner opted to vote absentee by mail, along with her husband and father. The new law allows voters to drop their complete ballots in the mail or return them in person, the latter of which she chose to do.

As an immediate family member, the law also permitted Pressley-Turner to return her husband’s and father’s ballots with hers, as long as they filled out a form authorizing her to do so on their behalf.

After filling out the authorization forms they had been mailed, Pressley-Turner brought the ballots and forms with her to the Richland County elections office in downtown Columbia, but an election worker told her they couldn’t accept those forms. Instead, she was instructed to take a new form, similar to the old one but with some changes, fill it out, and have her father and husband do the same if she wanted to return their ballots in person.

“I was there the second day of early voting, so it was OK for me to pop it in the mail,” Pressley-Turner said.

But she was concerned for people who might wait until the last day to drop off a mail-in ballot on someone else’s behalf with the old form, not realizing they filled out the wrong one, and may not have time to complete a new form or get that ballot through the mail.

“It’s been a little painful with some of those instances that have occurred,” Chris Whitmire, deputy executive director of the State Election Commission, said. “Those are temporary. Once we move forward into November, the challenges of this transition will go away.”

But Whitmire said in this instance, the new law doesn’t allow counties to accept the old form, which had been mailed before the governor signed the legislation.

This is one of several changes to the absentee voting by mail process that could trip voters up during the June primary.

The first changes regard who can vote absentee by mail. The following people now qualify:

  • Persons with employment obligations which prevent them from voting during early voting hours for the duration of the early voting period, and during the hours the polls are open on election day
  • Persons attending a sick or physically disabled person which prevents them from voting during early voting hours for the duration of the early voting period, and during the hours the polls are open on election day
  • Persons confined to a jail or pretrial facility pending disposition of arrest or trial which prevents them from voting during early voting hours for the duration of the early voting period, and during the hours the polls are open on election day
  • Persons who will be absent from their county of residence during early voting hours for the duration of the early voting period, and during the hours the polls are open on election day
  • Persons with physical disabilities
  • Persons 65 years of age or older
  • Members of the Armed Forces and Merchant Marines of the United States, their spouses, and dependents residing with them
  • Persons admitted to a hospital as an emergency patient on the day of the election or within a four-day period before the election

If the qualifications above don’t apply to them, they have to vote in person during the early voting period or on primary election day, June 14.

For people who do qualify and want to vote by mail, they need to request an absentee application by phone, mail, or in person. They can no longer do this online or through fax or email, and they have to return that application in person or by mail by Friday at 5 p.m. — a week earlier than the previous application return deadline.

The State Election Commission had to create a new application when the governor signed the new voting law last month, and at this point, voters need to turn in that new application, as the old one will no longer be accepted.

“If you don’t already have a new application, your best bet is early [in-person] voting,” Whitmire said, noting Friday’s deadline.

Once they receive and fill out their ballot, that has to be returned by 7 p.m. on June 14, primary election day.

If voters are dropping it off in person, they need a photo ID.

Under the new law, only an immediate family member or authorized representative for someone with an illness or disability can return a ballot in person on someone’s behalf, and they both also need to fill out a new authorization form.

As Pressley-Turner found out, even if they were mailed an old form, they can’t return that one.

“It’s been a challenge over these past two weeks to get all these rules and information out there. People can get caught in these little traps where, you know, you understand the old rules, but the rules have changed,” Whitmire said.

People who don’t meet Friday’s deadline to return an absentee application are still able to vote early in person, and they do not need an excuse or reason to do so.

Every county has at least one early voting location open, and voters can cast their ballots between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays through June 10. They will need to bring a photo ID or voter registration card.

In counties with multiple early voting sites, voters who live in those counties can cast their ballots at any of them through June 10.

People who vote on primary election day on June 14 will do so at their normal voting precinct, all of which will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. that day.

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