By JEFFREY COLLINS
The Associated Press
COLUMBIA - The South Carolina Senate agreed on Wednesday to allow all voters in the state to cast absentee ballots because of the COVID-19 pandemic but rejected a proposal by Democrats to allow ballots to be placed in drop boxes.
Instead, absentee ballots will still have to be mailed in or dropped off in person at voting offices in each county if the bill is approved by the House and signed by the governor.
The bill passed unanimously, but the drop box proposal and others, such as allowing early voting, were rejected by 24-16 or 25-16 votes on party lines, with Democrats on the losing side.
Republicans spent only a few minutes arguing for their proposed changes during Wednesday's session. Most settled on making small, careful changes that they said balanced safe voting with preventing fraud.
"I'm confident we are going to do again today what is necessary in order to maintain the integrity of our election process, keep it accessible, keep it safe in light of the pandemic," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, a Republican from Edgefield.
Democrats said Republicans were risking the health of people in a state where almost 2,650 people have died from COVID-19 and nearly 119,000 people have contracted the virus.
"Imagine the concerns of voters across South Carolina who have to make a life-or-death decision in November if we don't do the right thing today," said state Sen. Mia McLeod, a Democrat from Columbia.
McLeod has sickle cell anemia and was wearing a mask and gloves as she made her first appearance on the Senate floor since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March.
The bill now goes to the House, which plans to return along with the Senate on Sept. 15 for a two-week special session. Senators decided to come back for a one-day special session after election officials said it was critical for planning purposes to quickly change the rules for the Nov. 3 election.
The proposed November rules don't go as far as state Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino had requested in a July letter to legislative leaders in both chambers.
She asked for online applications for absentee ballots, curbside voting for the disabled in a central location instead of at each precinct, and early, as well as absentee, voting, although she acknowledged there likely wasn't enough time this summer to get early voting in place.
"We adopted a number of the things Ms. Andino requested," Massey said. "We think some of them were not good ideas. Again, our overall goal was to ensure everybody was able to vote but at the same time protect the integrity of the process."
There are at least two lawsuits over South Carolina's voting rules in federal court. Judges said they wanted to see what lawmakers planned before making rulings. For the June primaries, a federal judge struck down the requirement that a person voting by absentee ballot have a witness who would also sign the ballot. The judge said such a requirement carried too much risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Most of the new rules for November's elections are similar to those put in place for the June primaries. They state that anyone may cast an absentee ballot, not just those out of town or working, and that election officials may begin processing absentee ballots on Nov. 1 and start counting the votes first thing on Election Day. Lawmakers hope the latter provisions will help election officials handle what is expected to be an unprecedented crush of votes outside of polling places.
The number of absentee votes cast in June more than doubled from the primaries four years before. If that trend continues in November, more than 1 million of the nearly 3.4 million registered South Carolina voters would cast ballots outside their polling places.
Democrats said the potential for voter fraud was a figment of Republican lawmakers' imagination that reminded them of the Lizard Man, a reptilian Bigfoot-like creature who a few people in rural Lee County swore attacked cars in 1988. The claims created a brief national media frenzy.
"The difference between voter fraud in South Carolina and Lizard Man is somebody ... actually said they saw Lizard Man," said Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian of Columbia, one of the lawyers suing the state over the voting rules.
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