Coronavirus means candidates should 'plan for any anticipated scenario' in SC elections
Coronavirus didn't prevent hundreds of candidates from meeting Monday's noon deadline for filing to run for elected offices in South Carolina, but the global pandemic may affect plans for the state's primaries, which are now set for June 9.
Several options, including delaying the primaries, are being discussed, but no decisions have been made. One reason for that is state legislators may have to approve any changes, and they are not meeting these days because of worries about spreading COVID-19.
"We are concerned about the safe conduct of the state primaries, as well as all 2020 elections, including the November General Election," state Election Commission spokesperson Chris Whitmire said in an email.
One U.S. Senate seat, the state's seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the entire state General Assembly and scores of county races will be part of this year's election cycle.
A total of 45 local elections that were set for March and April already have been postponed until after May 1 because of coronavirus concerns.
"The main issue is that elections as we currently conduct them in South Carolina require large numbers of people to congregate in one place — something that everyone is currently being asked not to do," Whitmire said. "Another issue is that a large number of poll managers required for polling places fall into high-risk categories. Furthermore, there may be issues with keeping polling places. It is possible that many institutions (schools, churches, etc.) would decline to continue to allow their facility to be used as a polling place."
According to Whitmire, "Delaying the primaries is certainly an idea that some have talked about."
Whitmire said the Election Commission has shared a number of other options with Gov. Henry McMaster and state lawmakers, including:
► Permitting no-excuse absentee voting. A pandemic currently is not listed among the reasons that voters can cite to cast an absentee ballot.
► Allowing first-responders, medical personnel and voters with disabilities to receive and return absentee ballots electronically.
► Opening early voting centers where voters could cast ballots over a period of weeks before the primary. This would likely reduce crowds and allow for more sanitary conditions.
► Allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail, a practice that used in numerous other states.
Whitmire said the General Assembly has the authority to approve voting changes. He said he is unsure if McMaster could order changes related to how elections are conducted during a pandemic.
Asked during a news conference last week about the status of the state's primaries, McMaster said, "The legislature would have to change that date. At this time, I see no reason to upset that system.”
State Rep. Gary Clary, a Republican from Clemson who is chairman of an elections panel in the House, said, "We've got a lot of issues out there that need to be considered."
While Clary said he doesn't know when lawmakers will be called back to Columbia to resume work, he emphasized that any changes involving the primary will need to be made relatively soon.
"Every day puts you closer to having to make a decision about that," he said Monday.
Clary and another Republican lawmaker from Pickens County, Rep. Neal Collins, sent a letter to McMaster last week urging him to delay the state's primaries until August as part of a statewide coronavirus stay-at-home order. McMaster has refrained from issuing such an order to this point.
The uncertainty is something that candidates like Craig Wooten will have to deal with during the coming weeks. Wooten is an Anderson County councilman who is challenging state Sen. Richard Cash in the Republican primary.
"We're going to have to plan for any anticipated scenario," Wooten said.
Follow Kirk Brown on Twitter @KirkBrown_AIM