BY STATE SENS. MIA MCLEOD AND DICK HARPOOTLIAN
State and local election officials and nonpartisan watchdog groups agree that the November general election will be one of the largest in expected voter turnout — and also the most challenging in our lifetime due to COVID-19.
The virus is a risk to everyone.
But it is downright dangerous for elderly voters and those confronting medical issues like:
▪ Type 2 diabetes.
▪ Chronic kidney disease.
▪ Weakened immune system.
▪ Heart disease.
▪ Sickle cell disease.
MANY VOTERS AFFECTED
And this turns to be a lot of voters.
According to 2017 DHEC data, for example, South Carolina has the fifth-highest prevalence of diabetes in the United States with more than 500,000 — or 13.4% of the adult population — affected. In fact, an estimated 127,000 of these South Carolinians have the disease but do not know it.
These risks pose real problems for voters and election officials seeking to conduct a successful election.
A CLEAR PROBLEM
The problem is simple.
The primary method most of us use to vote — in person on Election Day — requires voters to congregate in large numbers in enclosed spaces.
But that is precisely the method of voting that, according to public health officials, will spread the virus.
Officials expect 71% of South Carolina’s 3.3 million registered voters to vote this year. So while lines can and do occur in a normal election year, they are guaranteed during this presidential election.
Complicating matters is the fact that the virus’ risk to poll workers threatens worker shortages and precinct consolidations — which will likely result in more voters at fewer polling locations standing in longer lines.
A SIMPLE SOLUTION
But the solution is also simple.
We need to spread the number of voters across as many days and balloting procedures as possible to help everyone maintain social distance.
And state election officials have already identified a feasible plan to do this.
▪ Allowing early voting or no-excuse absentee voting.
▪ Eliminating the mail-ballot witness requirement.
▪ Allowing drop box absentee returns.
▪ Providing special curbside voting precincts.
▪ Providing on-line systems for absentee applications and electronic ballot delivery for first responders.
▪ Scheduling additional time to start counting absentee ballots, which is particularly important given that we could see more than 1 million paper mail ballots returned for counting if absentee voting is expanded — as it was during the June primary elections.
These are not our proposals.
They are the proposals put forth and recommended by an expert — the State Election Commission’s director, who implored the Legislature in both March and July to take “immediate” action to protect voters and workers.
There is no “out of the box” thinking here.
These procedures have been successfully implemented in other states without compromising election integrity.
They also reflect the collective judgment of state and local officials who have been meeting regularly to plan how to safely conduct an election during a pandemic.
All of these proposals accomplish the same goal, which is to ensure safe and free ballot access for everyone by spreading participation out and diluting the concentration of voters on Election Day.
A CLEAR CHOICE
When the state Senate returns on Sept. 2, we have a clear choice — a choice between safeguarding our election or crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.
We support broad, immediate action.
We need to leave politics at the Senate doors and pass a bill that adopts all of the State Election Commission’s recommendations.
Ideally we could agree to do more.
But given the scope of the problem and the limited time to do something about it, the notion we should do less than what state and local election officials have asked is too great of a risk to take.
Indeed the State Election Commission has warned that we face “the greatest challenge to our election system our state has ever seen.”
It’s time to pass a bill that protects voters and election workers — and puts the November election in the hands of experts.
That’s what we support and ask our colleagues to do.
State Sen. Mia McLeod represents District 22, which includes Richland and Kershaw counties. State Sen. Dick Harpootlian represents District 20, which includes Richland and Lexington counties.