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SC Likely To Set Record For Mailed Absentee Ballots

Erik (HASH) Hersman

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's decision to allow absentee voting by mail for anyone in next month's primaries because of the coronavirus could mean a long night waiting for results.

With more than two weeks to go before the primaries, the state had already mailed out 72,000 absentee ballots, which take longer to process and count than in-person votes at the polls, according to figures Friday from the South Carolina Election Commission.

About 160,000 voters have requested applications for absentee ballots for the June 9 primaries, election officials said.

The record for mailed-in ballots was nearly 140,000 in the 2016 general election where 2.1 million people voted.

All indications are the June 9 primaries will surpass that total for mail-in ballots, and they will be a much bigger percentage of the total vote.

In June 2016, the most recent primaries similar to this year's without a governor's race, less than 418,000 people voted.

People who vote by mail seal their ballot in an inner envelope that then goes into a second outer envelope to mail. The same new law that allowed people to vote absentee by mail for these primaries because of the pandemic also lets county election officials to open that outer envelope the day before the election, state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

But the inner envelope can't be opened and the ballot inside scanned until the morning of election day, an extra step not necessary for in-person voting because voters put their own ballots into the scanners, Whitmire said.

“You vote on election day, the voter processes his own ballot," Whitmire said.

Because of the amount of time needed to scan mail ballots, the Election Commission has told counties if they aren't finished counting votes in the wee hours after polls closed, they can secure the ballots and get a few hours sleep.

That could leave the results of some races hanging until well into the next morning.

COVID-19 is causing changes to voting at the polls, too. A number of poll managers are elderly and don't want to risk catching the virus. So the Election Commission is using extra money given to the agency by lawmakers to pay poll workers $165 for a day of training and a day of voting, up from $135, Whitmire said.

Some buildings traditionally used as polling places, like fire stations, are refusing this year because they don't want to risk infected people inside. Counties are working on consolidating voting locations, officials said.

“We have a nursing home as a polling place in Greenwood County,” Whitmire said. “I don't think either voters or the residents want it to be one this time.”

Election officials plan to have plenty of sanitizer on hand for polling places, along with protective masks and face shields for workers. Voters will likely be given cotton swabs to press buttons on machines and will be asked to hold their licenses when they show them at the polls, officials said.

The Election Commission has had to alter its plans in less than three months since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Whitmire said there will likely be other bumps, but officials are prepared.

“We will get the ballots counted accurately and with integrity. It might just take a while," he said.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control on Sunday announced 209 new cases of the novel coronavirus and 10 additional deaths, bringing the total number of people confirmed to have COVID-19 to 10,096. At least 435 people in the state have died from the virus.

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