Why legislation that could have increased turnout, sped up results in SC is dead

A sign with the words "Vote Here" over an American flag on a sidewalk
A sign with the words "Vote Here" over an American flag on a sidewalk

A "Vote Here" sign outside a polling location at Dreher High School in Columbia on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024 (Abraham Kenmore/SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — Legislation that could have increased turnout in South Carolina’s local elections while speeding up Election Day tallying died in the final minutes of this year’s regular session, despite both chambers approving it overwhelmingly. 

Statewide, there are more than 300 scheduled local elections yearly. And that doesn’t even include special elections to fill a vacancy for whatever reason, according to the South Carolina Election Commission.

“Literally almost every Tuesday is an election day in this state,” Director Howard Knapp told the SC Daily Gazette on Wednesday. “I think there were two counties this week that had elections.” 

The bill would have consolidated all municipal elections to two days yearly — a Tuesday in early April or November — and required county election offices to take over running elections for towns and cities that want to transfer the responsibility. 

The idea behind the consolidation was to reduce the time and money needed to run elections, while also improving turnout in contests that voters often simply don’t know about because they’re so sporadic.

It could have also possibly improved interest in candidates wanting to compete. In Barnwell County in 2022, a school board contest was decided by 24 voters — total — in a runoff after no one filed to run and two candidates who received one write-in vote apiece agreed to face off, according to The People-Sentinel.

The legislation also would’ve allowed winners in municipal elections to take office even if a challenge is filed, rather than leaving the incumbent in the seat pending a decision.

In Sumter, a challenge left a city council seat vacant for nine months. The incumbent had died, so there was no one to represent residents in that portion of Sumter while a challenge from the last-place finisher in a five-way race filed multiple appeals eventually settled by the state Supreme Court last year.

House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, vowed to prevent what he called a “unicorn situation” from ever happening again in South Carolina.

Another provision added by senators would’ve allowed early voting results to be uploaded at 7 a.m. on Election Day instead of 7 p.m. — allowing for a quicker turnaround of results once polls close. 

Any or all of those fixes becoming law “would have been an improvement,” Knapp said. “It would have cleaned up some issues. … It would have improved elections in the state.” 

Why did it die?

The House voted unanimously to pass the bill in April 2023. But the Senate didn’t take it up for a floor vote until May 8. It cleared the chamber with a 38-4 vote a day later — the last day of the regular session.

But since the Senate made changes, the bill had to return to the House for a final vote of agreement. 

With the clock ticking toward the mandated 5 p.m. close of the session, the House needed unanimous approval to take up the bill. And Rep. Rob Harris, a member of the chamber’s hard-right Freedom Caucus, objected, killing it.

Harris, a Spartanburg County Republican, noted he was among those voting 111-0 a year ago to approve the municipal changes.

“I voted for that bill when it came through the first time,” he said.

But he said he wanted a discussion on the Senate changes allowing election officials to get a head start on counting ballots cast in person during the early voting window. 

Early voting results are stored on secure thumb drives. It can take just minutes or up to an hour each to transfer data from them into the system. In large counties with multiple drives, waiting until polls close at 7 p.m. to upload the results can significantly delay election results. People across the state may go to bed not knowing who won, according to Knapp and local officials.

The Senate’s additions would have allowed the upload to start 12 hours earlier, at the same time election officials can start processing mail-in absentee ballots.

“They couldn’t release any results, but it would have been, like, ready to go,” Knapp said. “You’ve turned the ignition. You haven’t turned the car over yet, but it’s like right there.”

Senators also wanted to mandate that hand-audits be conducted publicly, something Knapp said election offices do not always do.

Explaining his objection, Harris said he wanted a full debate on the Senate’s changes, and a full debate wasn’t possible in minutes. So, the Wellford Republican was willing to let it die.

Isaac Cramer, director of the Charleston County elections office, said he’s hopeful that legislators might resurrect the bill when they return in the coming weeks to finalize the state budget. 

Amending the temporary law that governs what can be taken up during the extended session is possible with supermajority votes in both chambers. But legislative leaders aren’t optimistic. Trying to add anything to the agenda can open the floodgates of legislators wanting other proposals to be added.

“I’m optimistic that it can be done,” Cramer said. “We’ve been contacting our legislators, letting them know that this bill is really crucial to election officials. It would be a win ahead of a very busy summer and fall.”

Cramer said his office has operated early voting hours almost nonstop since January, with few breaks, due to the presidential primaries, local and special elections. Having set days for municipal elections would help, he said, and being able to upload early voting data before polls close would allow prompt results. 

“If the bill doesn’t pass, expect long delays on election night and people not knowing the result of elections when they go to bed, which is not the normal for South Carolina,” he said.

Knapp is not hopeful legislators will take up the bill again next year, when presidential, congressional and Statehouse elections won’t be on any ballots.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be a lot of priority put on election reform or election cleanup bills next year, when nobody is on the ballot and the election is over,” he said.

What’s in the budget?

The one thing legislators must do in the extended session is finalize a state spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. Negotiations between the chambers’ differing proposals officially started Tuesday. 

A clause in the House plan would allow Knapp to step in and appoint an interim director for a county elections board if the local director leaves within 60 days of an election. That’s not in the Senate plan after it was ruled out of order. 

This November will be the first general election with a presidential contest for most of the local directors statewide, since 80% of them have been replaced since 2021, Knapp said.

In Saluda County, the entire staff left earlier this year, leaving the office illegally closed from Jan. 3-7, according to an Election Commission spokesperson. It was then open with non-regular hours from Jan. 8-19 — basically, whenever staff was available — just two weeks before the Democratic presidential primary.

State law doesn’t give Knapp the authority to take over.

“I can’t reach down into a county government office and run it,” Knapp said. “I just can’t. There’s nothing in the law that allows me to do that.”

Lynn Teague with the state League of Women Voters said more state funding for local elections would be helpful. 

“The state, and to some extent the feds, call the shots, and then the counties get beat up if something goes wrong,” she said.

“We believe more consistency is required in municipal elections,” Teague said.

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