COLUMBIA, S.C. — A bill in South Carolina that would greatly expand voting through no-excuse absentee ballots and eliminating witnesses for votes cast by mail got a hearing in the Republican-dominated Legislature on Thursday.
The subcommittee hearing was less than an hour long, forced to end because the House was going into session.
Sponsor Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said she is aware the bill will likely land around the bottom of the legislative “how a bill becomes a law” flow chart. But the Democrat from Orangeburg said democracy can’t survive unless those in power trust those who give them power.
“We trust them when they vote for us. But when we think they are going to vote for somebody else than our level of trust somehow diminishes,” said Cobb-Hunter, who is South Carolina’s longest serving House member at 29 years.
Republicans hold almost two-thirds of the seats in South Carolina’s House and Senate and the governor’s office. Although state leaders have not embraced the trend in other GOP controlled states to pass greater restrictions on voting, there seems only limited appetite for tweaking existing laws – which while enabled flexible voting during the coronavirus pandemic but also saw a strong showing for the GOP in the state House and Senate. Republicans gained five seats.
Legislators in 2021 have only considered a few minor bills such as assuring election rules are the same in every county.
If enacted into law, Cobb-Hunter’s bill – and another one proposed by Republican Rep. Brandon Newton – would be the biggest expansions of voting in South Carolina since the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests and other barriers to voting that almost always targeted Black people.
South Carolina now only accepts a limited number of excuses for absentee voting. Cobb-Hunter’s proposal includes a provision for no-excuse absentee voting for 30 days before an election. It calls for drop boxes to make delivering of absentee ballots easier and a vote-by-mail system. It would allow people to register to vote and cast an in-person absentee ballot the same day. It would eliminate requiring a witness signature on an absentee ballot.
One provision – to allow use of college photo IDs as identification at the polls – was lauded during online testimony.
Courtney Thomas of Columbia told committee members that she struggled to vote absentee in college because of the confusing requirements and the refusal at the polling place to accept her college ID. She moved frequently to save on rent, but found she was unable to register at her new precinct and vote on the same day.
“Make my voice heard in the community where I pay my taxes and make my home,” Thomas said. “I ask all of you to please vote ‘Yes’ on the bill because voting should not be hard.”
Newton’s bill would establish two weeks of early voting and maintain the state’s deadline to register to vote 30 days before an election.
All 10 people who got to speak either in person or virtually supported Cobb-Hunter’s bill.
The hearing was scheduled at 9 a.m. The full House went into session at 10 a.m. and the body has a rule that a subcommittee hearing must end when they all meet.
None of the three Republicans on the subcommittee asked questions or spoke substantially about the bill until Chairman Jay Jordan ended the meeting with a promise to hear more testimony “sometime in the not too distant future.”
“All South Carolinians have the right and opportunity to vote and taking into consideration our responsibility that vote is protected and secure based on the underlying sanctity of that vote,” said Jordan, a Republican from Florence.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.