COLUMBIA - The first day of the South Carolina Legislature's two-week special session to wrap up ends left loose by the COVID-19 pandemic was marked by two groups advocating for constitutional rights at the capitol building: One urging legislators to expand protections for voters this fall and one demanding state leaders take the pandemic less seriously.
At the end of its own debate Tuesday, the House of Representatives made some acknowledgement of the pandemic's severity, passing a bill that would allow all voters to cast absentee ballots because of the outbreak. The bill is now headed to Gov. Henry McMaster, who intends to sign it into law once ratified, according to his office.
"The bill strikes a good balance between protecting South Carolinians and the integrity of the voting process," said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.
Amendments that would have removed the witness signature requirement and added drop boxes for absentee ballots were voted down mostly along party lines, as Republicans cited the potential for voter fraud and Democrats said the measures would help preserve the lives of the state's most vulnerable voters.
"The fraudulent thing, in my opinion, is denying eligible voters every opportunity to vote in a global pandemic," said Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins, who introduced the amendments on the House floor. She represents District 70, which includes parts of Richland and Sumter counties.
On the Statehouse's north steps Tuesday morning, socially distanced civil rights advocates said those amendments would protect elderly voters and others vulnerable to the virus, which has infected more than 130,000 and killed almost 3,000 people in the state of 5 million so far.
Shortly before that, about 50 people affiliated with conservative organizations including the Greenville TEA Party and South Carolina Patriots for Liberty - bearing U.S. flags and nearly all unmasked - took to the south steps. They called on state and local government leaders to end the gathering and business restrictions and mask mandates issued during the last five months to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Speakers talked of student athletes sidelined for a season, businesses unfairly fined for violating pandemic-related ordinances and the civil liberties they say the mask ordinances violate. They expressed skepticism about the deadliness of the virus: "I'm opposed to the State of Emergency, because there is no emergency," said Ariana Zariah of Greenville.
The bill to allow absentee voting for any reason in a state of emergency passed out of the Senate unanimously earlier this month. Its proposed changes fall short of the recommendations made by state Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino in a July letter to legislative leaders in both chambers. Andino suggested providing officials with more time to process a potential influx of absentee ballots, allowing people to apply online for absentee voting and making early voting available.
The proposed rules resemble those established in June for the state's primaries, letting people vote absentee regardless of reason and allowing elections officials to open and start counting ballots earlier. A federal judge also struck down the requirement that absentee ballots also be signed by witnesses for the primary election.
The state faces at least two federal lawsuits challenging its voting rules during the pandemic. At a federal court hearing Friday, a judge said she was waiting on the House's Tuesday actions before issuing any orders, The State newspaper reported.
"Unfortunately, this legislation does not waive the witness signature requirement on absentee ballots, which makes voting from a safe social distance impossible for those who live alone," said Ali Titus with the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, one of the groups suing over voter protections. "We are asking the courts to remove this remaining hurdle to safe voting in South Carolina."
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