The presidential election may be all but over by Election Day. Just not in South Carolina. But maybe soon.
More than 40 percent of voters nationally are expected to cast their ballot for president before Election Day – up from the more than 30 percent who cast early ballots in 2008.
But it won’t happen in South Carolina which, along with 18 other states, is bucking the national trend and prohibits early voting.
Since 2009, the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly has shot down early-voting efforts, saying it is a bad idea for voters to cast ballots while time remains on the clock for revelations about candidates and the campaigns have finished making their cases.
But that sentiment appears to be shifting.
A growing number of S.C. House Republicans are warming to the idea of early voting now that a federal court has signed off on the state’s new voter ID law.
Now, thinking the state’s voting system is less susceptible to fraud, some Republicans could open the door for early voting. The subject has come up in talks in recent weeks among House Republicans who are gearing up for the January start of the legislative session.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, the lead sponsor of the state’s voter ID law, is the likely sponsor of any early-voting bill. Clemmons said Friday early voting is “a work in progress” but declined further comment until closer to the session’s start.
The S.C. General Assembly has not been entirely opposed to early voting.
Since 2009, Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced dozens of early-voting bills. Meanwhile, a handful of Republicans have introduced bills that would have allowed an early-voting window.
In 2010, both the Republican-controlled House and Senate approved a bill, sponsored by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, to create an early-voting window in the 16 days leading up to Election Day and also required voters to present an ID at the polls. But the Senate failed to pass a final, compromise version of the bill.
‘De facto early voting’
It’s clear South Carolinians want early voting.
In 2008, more than 340,000 South Carolinians cast absentee ballots either through the mail or in person, more than double the number in any previous presidential election, according to the S.C. Election Commission. (South Carolina allows voters to cast absentee ballots before Election Day if they will be out of town, have to work, are 65 or older or meet a handful of other approved reasons.)
“Voters are already using absentee voting as de facto early voting,” said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state Election Commission.
While early voting is convenient, lawmakers should try to make the early-voting window as small as possible, advises University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
“The real question is: How early should you let people vote?” said Sabato. “My general rule is to wait as late as you can because it’s like writing a review of play after only seeing two or three acts. The fourth act could change your mind.”
While a majority of voters make up their minds early in a presidential race, a small percentage – 2 percent to 3 percent – wait until the last few days to decide, Sabato said.
“In a tight race, that small percentage of voters can determine the outcome,” he said.
Democrats and the state Election Commission have long supported early voting, citing increased voter convenience. Early voting also allows more time for election officials to double-check ballots.
The state Election Commission prefers a 12-day window.
“It makes voting easier,” Whitmire said. “It also helps election officials because it takes the pressure off a one-day event where election officials are charged with making sure that, in a 12-hour period, 1.5 million people come out to vote and it goes off without a hitch.”
However, bringing early voting to the Palmetto State could be a political slugfest.
Conventional political wisdom says early voting favors Democratic candidates while absentee voting favors Republicans.
In 2008, for example, John McCain would have won Colorado, Florida, Iowa and North Carolina if only votes cast on Election Day decided the race.
But President Barack Obama took those states because Democratic voters took to the polls early, spurred on by Obama’s technology-savvy, grassroots campaign that encouraged voters, who typically did not cast ballots, to cast early ballots.
This time, Obama once again is appealing to voters to vote early, urging them to visit his campaign’s website, gottavote.com, to learn about early voting.
Early voting favors candidates with more money so that they can keep TV ads on the air and send out mailers over the course of the early-voting window, encouraging voters to support them. It also benefits candidates with solid on-the-ground organizations who can spend weeks getting their supporters to the polls, Sabato said.
“You have a couple of months to mobilize your voters and get them out to vote,” he said. “It’s different than when Election Day was a one-day sale.”
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.