Future of SC election reform bill in jeopardy, despite unanimous support in House and Senate

Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 8:23 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 21, 2022 at 11:29 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - After a routine vote in the state Senate on Thursday, a significant early voting bill has now passed both chambers of the South Carolina State House with bipartisan backing and without getting a single vote against it.

But that bill’s future to becoming law is in jeopardy because of a major disagreement between Republican leaders in the state’s legislative and executive branches.

The election reform bill, H.4919, would allow any registered voter in South Carolina to vote in person up to two weeks before an election without needing an excuse. While early voting was temporarily expanded in 2020 because of the pandemic, a permanent, no-excuse offering is currently nonexistent in the state.

The legislation also tightens up limits on who is allowed to vote absentee by mail, along with changing restrictions on when elections workers can open mail-in ballots, modifying what information is needed to request an absentee ballot, and other changes.

The Senate, House, and Gov. Henry McMaster agree on the vast majority of what is included in the nearly 40-page bill, but a sharp difference in opinion regarding oversight of the State Election Commission could doom the entire legislation.

Unlike many other state agencies and boards, the Senate does not confirm the governor’s appointees to this powerful commission.

But after South Carolina election-related lawsuits ended up before the U.S. Supreme in 2020, Senate leaders said that needs to change, so they amended the House-approved bill to give themselves “advice and consent” authority to oversee the election commission.

“If you look back at our experience in 2020, the most significant issues that we had related to election integrity were that the people charged with defending state law as it relates to elections didn’t do it, or they were weak in their defense, and that’s the election commission,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said. “There’s gotta be some accountability there. There is no accountability right now. The people who were there in 2020 are still there now.”

During the course of the Senate’s debate on the legislation Wednesday, a few Republican senators argued against the contested provision, saying House Republican leadership and the governor had threatened to no longer negotiate or to veto the bill if it was included.

Sen. Josh Kimbrell, R – Spartanburg, and Sen. Tom Davis, R – Beaufort, urged their colleagues to not let this sticking point between the two factions block a bill with such widespread support from becoming law.

“At the five-yard line, we very well may fumble the single greatest election reform bill of my lifetime,” Kimbrell said on the Senate floor.

However, that group’s push was voted down by a wide margin in a 35-9 vote, with Massey and other senators arguing it was critical to keep the oversight provision in place.

But with the Senate-approved version of the bill heading back to the lower chamber, where it originated, House leaders and the governor have since reiterated the controversial section was a nonstarter and that they would not agree to give the Senate this authority.

“The way this is constructed, the governor appoints those members. You want the accountability back to the governor — that’s part of the streamlining of government. That’s unpalatable for us to have the advice and consent,” House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R – York, said, adding that with the bill back in the House’s hands, it would move backward to the committee level instead of advancing to negotiations between the two chambers to work out a compromise to send to the governor.

In a tweet sent Wednesday night, McMaster said, “It’s unfortunate that some Senate Republicans were misled by the majority leader and Democrats and rejected a common sense compromise in order to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in SC. If this bill doesn’t become law, the voters will know who to blame and why.”

On Thursday, Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, R – Darlington, and South Carolina Republican Party Chair Drew McKissick also blamed Massey for causing the legislation’s halt, with Lucas writing in a statement that the Senate’s approved version “ended any real opportunity for election reform this year.”

“After two years of extremely hard work by many in both chambers, it is a shame that the Senate Majority Leader chose to unnecessarily increase his own power rather than take concrete steps to make South Carolina’s elections the most secure in the United States,” Lucas continued. “Voters need to know that the Senate, urged by their majority leader, killed voter integrity legislation because they wanted to take control of the Election Commission for themselves.”

McKissick, whose organization had been pushing for the election bill, said the state’s Republican activists “made it clear they’re unhappy.”

“Over the last year, we’ve worked hand in glove with legislators to draft the strongest election integrity bill in state history only to watch the state senate fumble it on the goal line. It’s insane. I’m extremely disappointed that our state senate leadership pushed a poison pill amendment that they knew ahead of time was unacceptable and non-negotiable to the House and the Governor,” McKissick said in part in a statement.

But Massey believes House leaders and the governor are bluffing.

“I think the folks in the House understand that they’re on an election ballot in a couple months, and they want an election reform bill, so I think the House will take some action,” Massey said. " … I’d be very surprised if they just don’t take it up.”

While all House member and the governor are up for reelection this year, senators will not face voters until 2024.

State leaders had said they wanted they changes to be in place by the upcoming June primary, so this disagreement means an already tight deadline is much more unlikely to be met.

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