Victoria Middleton, ACLU of SC
Barbara Zia, League of Women Voters

January 16, 2013. Columbia - The State. Voting is a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution, and for more than 200 years, America has been expanding access to the ballot box. We applaud our state legislators’ efforts to respond to the public’s demands to improve the voting process by proposing legislation to allow early voting for all citizens.

Early voting helps all of us, whether or not we vote early. It eases congestion at polling places and increases the efficiency of election administration by reducing the ratio of poll workers to voters. Early voting periods also afford extra time to address problems, including inaccuracies in voter rolls.

South Carolina already accommodates voters whose physical condition, age, employment or other circumstances prevent their voting at the polls on Election Day, and a record 375,000 South Carolinians cast absentee ballots in the November general election. We do not have, but should have, a provision for those who wish to vote early simply because it is more convenient.

Bills that would allow no-excuse early voting have been introduced in the House and Senate. S.4 would permit early voting beginning 11 days before an election and ending three days before the election; it also allows up to three early voting centers in each county. H.3176 would begin early voting one day later and require only one location per county.

We urge our legislators to settle on a term for early voting that truly improves access and efficiency. Early voting periods are in place in 32 states, ranging from four to 45 days; the average across all 32 states is 19 days. At least 12 of the 32 early voting states require that early vote centers be open on at least one Saturday or Sunday.

Voting on the Sunday before Election Day is popular with African-American and Latino voters, many of whom participate in voter turnout efforts organized by churches on that day. For these citizens, Sunday voting is a community celebration of participating in our democracy. For instance, in Florida on the Sunday before Election Day in 2008, one-third of the voters were African-American, although they comprise only 13 percent of the state’s electorate.

For many other citizens, early voting allows more convenience as they merge responsibilities as a citizen with those of caring for small children, fulfilling demanding workloads or meeting other personal needs that fall short of the excuses for absentee voting.

Unfortunately, the House bill also would eliminate some important excuses for absentee voting, including employment demands and vacations. This would prevent voting by many citizens who cannot vote in person during the in-person early voting period. Many people have multiple jobs or unpredictable work assignments, or they only have Sunday off. Some have jobs that take them out of state for weeks or months. Two-week vacations are common. Citizens may be out of state for several weeks to help with a new grandchild or to assist family members who are ill.

A construction worker from Lexington working on a building in Chapel Hill, an engineer from Greenville helping to assemble a plant in Missouri and a family from Barnwell on their long-awaited visit to friends in Colorado all need an opportunity to vote. The early voting bill that the General Assembly enacts should meet the needs of all of our citizens. Just 56 percent of eligible South Carolinians voted in the last general election.

Nationwide, more than a third of voters cast an early ballot in 2008. We should be making every effort to expand opportunities for all South Carolinians to make their voices heard, and we strongly support efforts to create an in-person early voting period in our state.