Editorial: Legislature should allow early voting

February 5, 2013 

— ALTHOUGH the seven-hour waits that some Richland County voters endured in November were an extreme, with specific causes, there’s nothing new about too-long waits to vote. Even when election officials manage to deploy all of their voting machines, people can end up waiting a couple of hours, sometimes more.

Some argue that anyone unwilling to be inconvenienced doesn’t need to be voting, and frankly, there’s something emotionally appealing about that argument, particularly when you think about how uninformed some voters are when they cast ballots.

But it’s one thing to say that to people who have a flexible work schedule, or who are retired or don’t work, and for whom a long wait is a mere inconvenience. It’s quite another to say it to hourly workers, who might have to take time off of work, if they even feel like they can risk asking for time off, or get charged extra for not picking their children up from day-care on time. We are quite literally saying that they should have to pay for the right to vote — while those of us in comfortable offices don’t.

That’s simply not acceptable when there is an easy alternative.

For several years, the professionals who run elections have been asking the Legislature to allow early voting, in order to keep pace with a growing population without having to buy more voting machines and hire more poll workers.

In addition to reducing the wait for those who prefer to vote on Electing Day, the change would end the dangerous practice of encouraging people to lie — which undermines respect for the rule of law. We do that by maintaining a widely disregarded, unenforced absentee-ballot law that requires people who want to vote early to meet one of 15 designated criteria, such as being at least 65, out of town on Election Day or otherwise unable to make it to their polling place.

Our editorial board has been reluctant to support the change, for primarily sentimental reasons. But we can no longer ignore the simple truth that our current system asks voters to give up too much in order to exercise their most fundamental right as citizens.

The question should not be whether to allow early voting but how.

Bills proposed by Senate Democrats and House Republicans both require early voting periods of about a week, including two Saturdays. The House bill shortens the list of people who can cast absentee votes, most notably eliminating the option for people who can’t vote in person because of their work. Although most such people could participate in early voting, some wouldn’t be able to, so we don’t see a legitimate reason for that change.

But the other differences are minor, and there’s no reason lawmakers can’t quickly pass legislation to add South Carolina to the list of 34 states that allow voters to cast their ballots before Election Day.

If the Legislature isn’t willing to do that, then it needs to spend the money necessary to purchase enough voting machines and hire enough poll workers to keep waiting times reasonable. That is, if it won’t allow early voting, it needs to waste taxpayer money on a more expensive solution.

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