With one week to go in the 2016 election, more South Carolinians are set to vote absentee than ever before.
The latest absentee numbers available Monday show the Palmetto State already has seen a more than 20 percent increase in the number of absentee ballots cast compared to the same period four years ago.
That increase could hold good news for both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Two counties where Democrats fare well — Richland and Charleston — have seen large numbers of absentee votes cast. Meanwhile, four counties that are Republican strongholds — Lexington, Spartanburg, York and Horry counties — also have seen heavy activity.
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As of early Monday, 256,000 absentee votes have been received by South Carolina’s 46 county election offices, compared to 208,000 on Oct. 29, 2012 – a comparable point in the last presidential election cycle. That is a 23 percent increase in voters casting absentee ballots.
Another 59,000 absentee ballots had been issued as of Monday but not yet returned. In total, 20.7 percent more absentee ballots have been issued this year compared to four years ago.
During the 2012 presidential race, 394,698 S.C. voters cast ballots ahead of Election Day. If the current year’s trend holds up for the final week of the 2016 campaign, as many as 474,000 people could vote absentee this year, estimates Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the SC Election Commission.
Why the increase?
Absentee voting has increased steadily in recent years, elections officials say.
In 2004, 9.7 percent of votes were cast absentee. Absentee voting jumped to 17 percent in 2008, and expanded again to 19.9 percent of votes cast in 2012.
The state’s electorate also has grown by 9 percent over the past four years — to 3.1 million voters today from 2.9 million in 2012.
In a good sign for Democratic presidential candidate Clinton, heavily Democratic Richland has seen the highest number of absentee ballots issued – 35,409 as of Friday. Meanwhile, heavily Republican Greenville County, which has more registered voters than Richland, has had only 20,807 absentee ballots issued. Charleston, which can favor Democrats, has seen 34,370 absentee ballots issued.
Four Republican strongholds — Lexington, Spartanburg, York and Horry counties — also have seen heavy activity.
Lexington has the fourth-most absentee ballots — 17,521 — while 16,931 were issued in Spartanburg, 14,760 in York and 13,128 in Horry, GOP presidential candidate Trump’s strongest county in the state’s February Republican primary.
Voters can apply for an absentee ballot and return it by Election Day. But more are voting in person at their county election office – 166,355 as of Friday – than by mail, which was the preferred option for 124,836.
At this point, that is understandable, Whitmire says, since the deadline for mail applications is Friday. “Right now, if you mail it, you’re running out of time,” he said.
It can take days for applications and ballots to pass through the mail, while with in-person voting the whole process can be done relatively quickly. Richland County is one of seven counties that has opened satellite polling places for absentee voters.
“Unless you really need to use the mail, you could be putting your ballot at risk,” Whitmire said.
If a voter has a mail-in ballot, they can deliver it back to their local election office up to and including on Election Day, Whitmire said. (But poll workers can’t accept mail ballots at your Election Day polling place.)
“I still have my ballot sitting on my kitchen table,” Whitmire said. “I need to get that in the mail.”
MORE IN SC VOTING ABSENTEE
2016: 256,000 absentee votes cast through Monday, a 23 percent increase over the same point four years earlier.
2012: 394,698 absentee votes, or 19.9 percent of total votes cast
2008: 342,364, or 17.7 percent of the total
2004: 157,990, or 9.7 percent of the total
2000: 91,504, or 6.4 percent of the total
SOURCE: S.C. Election Commission
To vote absentee
To get your absentee ballot, you must make an application to your local election office by 5 p.m. Friday. Ballots must be returned no later than Election Day, Nov. 8. Ballots also can be cast in person at your county elections and voter registration office until the close of business Monday.
WHERE ARE THEY VOTING?
The Top 7 S.C. counties in absentee votes cast thus far
Richland: 35,409 absentee votes