MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - The countdown continues before voters take to the polls on Election Day.
Nov. 3 has also become a deadline of sorts because of the number of South Carolinians who have already voted in this cycle through the absentee voting process.
Chris Whitmire, the election commission’s spokesperson, said that thus far, 1,500 absentee by-mail ballots have been returned without witness signatures, and there’s no provision in the law to “cure” or fix these ballots, so they will ultimately be rejected.
“It’s been a very difficult situation this year - really goes back to prior to really the pandemic. The witness signature has been required for a long time under South Carolina law. Absentee voters who’ve voted absentee by mail for a long time are well aware of it,” Whitmire said. “The court struck down the witness requirement for June, so it wasn’t in place for the June primaries and the runoffs. That order expired.”
A continued legal battle ultimately ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was reinstated on Oct. 5, after South Carolina voters had already begun returning ballots.
“It was on, it was off, it was on, it was off,” said Whitmire.
There was a grace period for ballots already cast and shortly received following the order, but any ballots received by county officials past Oct. 7 could not be counted.
“It’s not voter suppression; it is certainly an unfortunate rule change that potentially could have caused some confusion amongst voters, and our job as election officials is to tell people what the rules are, and if they’ve changed to let them know about it," Whitmire said.
The election commission, he said, has done everything possible to make sure voters understand the rules.
“Voter suppression would be some act that somebody takes that is intended to dissuade them from voting or to make it difficult for them to vote,” Whitmire said. "And this is certainly a rule that’s been in place for a long time and is something that is universal across the board.”
Dr. Drew Kurlowski, a political science professor with Coastal Carolina University, agreed that changing absentee voting practices from the state’s primary to the general election causes confusion, though the early voting numbers have been a positive indicator of voter participation.
“I think our state and local election officials are doing their best," he said. “But again, I’m always one to probably err on the side of how can we make it easier to vote, and how can we make sure that everyone who is eligible gets to cast their ballot.”
When it comes to how quickly voters can expect to find the results of the election, Whitmire says by-mail ballots do take the longest to process, and the volume being handled this year has at least doubled since the previous record set for by-mail ballot voting returns.
New state law changes are helping election officials start that process earlier than usual, along with incorporating additional resources and technology, but it’s still possible some counties might be a bit held up, though Whitmire is not anticipating any days-long delays.
“I think most counties will be done on election night," said Whitmire. "It is possible that a county could have to go into the next day, and that’s kind of a county-by-county decision based on volume, and where they’re at as we get late into the night.”
Kurlowski said processing ballots varies from state to state, and the idea or expectation of knowing the exact winner on election night hasn’t historically always been available.
“It is important to manage expectations and to understand that delays in reporting vote totals because of the pandemic, because of the increased use of mailed-in balloting is totally normal, and is not indicative of any foul play," he said.
Whitmire said he thinks South Carolinians can feel very confident about voting absentee.
“We have a lot of experience doing this, just not at this volume. So we have been able to increase our capacity, and do what we’ve always done, but in higher numbers,” Whitmire said. “And it’s just a matter of taking pressure from one place - which you’re kind of used to election day pressure, with three-fourths of people voting all in one day in a 12-hour period - and the dynamics change.”