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South Carolina prepares for influx of absentee votes

Over a million South Carolinians could be voting by mail this November, election officials say.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Election Commission is expecting a record-shattering number of absentee votes in November. 

South Carolinians can apply for an absentee ballot for the general election, if eligible, and submit it via mail or in person. 

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"We don’t have a lot of experience conducting elections in pandemics, but we do have experience with June primaries and run-offs, and what we saw was a tremendous increase in absentee voting, particularly an increase in absentee by mail voting," says Chris Whitmire with the s.C. Election Commission.

Whitmire is the director of public information for the South Carolina Election Commission. He says one reason absentee ballots increased greatly in June, was that every South Carolinian could get one. Usually, voters must meet requirements to vote absentee, like being away at school or being physically disabled.

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"In June, we had the state of emergency reason, that allowed every voter in South Carolina to vote absentee if they wanted to," Whitmire explains. "That expired though, on July 1. So, now we’re back to voters having to meet one of 18 reasons to be able to vote absentee, and we’ve recommended that the [state of emergency] reason by reinstated so every voter can vote absentee."

Whitmire says he hopes the General Assembly will pass that request in September. If they do, the number of people voting absentee in the general election will be recording breaking.

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"A million and a half people could vote absentee, and over a million people could vote absentee by mail, which is extraordinary. The previous record for overall absentee voting is about 520,000. The record for absentee by mail is 140,000," Whitmire says.

With the increase in mail, comes concern over getting all the ballots counted on time.

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"If we reach that level, we really have some issues with processing all of those ballots on the back end before the polls close on election night so we can report results. One of the things we’ve done on that is ask the General Assembly for more time for county officials to begin opening those ballots."

Specifically, the South Carolina Election Commission wants county officials to be able to start scanning ballots as early as the Friday before the election. The current law allows them to open exterior envelopes starting 9 a.m. the day before the election, but they have to wait until election day to open interior envelopes and scan ballots.

RELATED: 'Emergency changes' needed before November elections, State Election Commission says

Director of Voter Registration and Elections for Richland County, Alexandria Stephens, tells us they’re hiring additional staff to help handle the increase in absentee ballots.

"We are opening seven satellite absentee locations. The eighth one will be at the 2020 Hampton Street location. We are also looking into getting drop boxes for each of those locations. I’ve gotten several calls that say, 'Well, if [a ballot] is mailed to me, can I bring it back physically?' and of course the answer is yes. So, we’re looking into getting drop boxes. That way, they won’t necessarily have to deal with anyone, they can just push it into the drop box, and we are working to make sure those drop boxes are secure, as well."

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Election officials have also purchased automatic letter opening machines to speed up the process of counting ballots. 

If you plan on voting absentee, you can apply for a ballot right now. Once you’re approved, you’ll be sent a ballot in the beginning of October. Election officials are encouraging absentee voters to fill out and return their ballots as soon as possible.