A bill that would have extended voter registration in the state has been derailed by fears of voter registration fraud from the S.C. GOP party chairman, according to lawmakers.
South Carolina House Republicans on Wednesday killed a bill, without debate, that proponents argue would have simplified the voter registration process. Last month, House members approved the bill with bipartisan support in a 70-30 vote.
In an unusual reversal, 20 Republicans switched their votes Wednesday to oppose the bill and seven Republicans who did not vote on the second reading voted “no” on its third and final reading. The final vote was 55-40 to kill the bill.
“I am disappointed that a bill that seeks to improve services to our citizens and simplify the process would be voted down on partisan lines for no logical reason,” said State Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, the bill’s primary sponsor.
S.C. Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick attended a House GOP caucus meeting after the bill passed on second reading, where he raised concerns about the shortened time for election officials to verify applicants’ voter registration.
Two GOP House members, Reps. Micah Caskey of Lexington and Weston Newton of Beaufort, said McKissick and caucus members raised concerns about potential voter registration fraud if the bill passed.
But asked about that on Wednesday, S.C. GOP executive director Hope Walker said, “It’s fair to say that shortening the deadline can create any number of unanticipated issues.”
McKissick told The State his concern was about leaving less time for election officials to do their work.
“It allows a full work week of less time for election officials to verify registration applications, and moves the application deadline a full week inside of the beginning of absentee voting,” McKissick told The State. “So you have election officials doing two things at the same time, trying to handle absentee ballots and voter registration applications. And we’ve seen the inability of Richland County to adequately count absentee ballots.”
The county elections agency failed to count more than 1,000 votes in the 2018 general election, or about 1 percent of the votes cast. The embarrassing misstep did not affect the result of any races.
“The cons outweigh the pros, to put it simply,” McKissick said.
Caskey, one of the GOP supporters urging the bill’s passage, said it is necessary.
“I’ve talked with election officials across the state,” he said. “And, without exception, those people all told me (they) wanted this bill. The only opposition I’ve heard has come from party officials.”
The bill required voter registrations, applications and absentee voting requests to be submitted within 25 days before an election. Currently, voter registrations, applications and absentee voting forms must be submitted within 30 to 31 days before an election.
The deadlines range from Friday to Tuesday and becomes difficult to explain to voters, said Chris Whitmire of the S.C. Election Commission, which requested the change.
If the election falls on a Tuesday, the deadline falls on a weekend, when election offices are closed, which in many cases creates a de facto in-person deadline of 5 p.m. on a Friday.
The proposed measure was recommended by the House Legislative Oversight Committee after completing their study of the commission.
Supporters of the bill said the Republican party’s fears are misguided.
“The Republican party thinks that this is the next thing you’ll have (leading) to same-day registration, and that certainly was not part of this bill, and certainly nothing I envisioned happening,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, who chaired the oversight subcommittee that recommended the bill. “This is simply to assist voter registration officials in this state in doing their job.”
Last fall, a South Carolina Judge extended the deadline for voters to register before November’s midterm elections after Hurricane Florence disrupted election preparations in many parts of the state. The court’s order extended the voter registration deadline until the close of business on Oct. 17 throughout the state, which was 20 days before the election.
“We dealt with the 20-day deadline just fine in 2018,” Whitmire said. “It’s not about shortening the deadline, but if you’re going to create a consistent deadline, there’s only one way to go and that’s shortening … to get to this consistent mark.”
Federal law states the longest a voter registration deadline can be is 30 days before an election.
Whitmire said the commission recommended 25 days because it was the closest option to 30 days, without possibly having a weekend or holiday deadline for a Tuesday general election or a Saturday presidential preference primary.
“What we want is a uniform, consistent deadline for all voter registration methods (in-person, by mail, online or at the DMV). Period,” he said.