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Not ‘rocket science:’ SC Black lawmaker, activists push for election protections

·4 min read

Black South Carolina voters, politicians and community activists on Tuesday urged Congress and the state Legislature to pass legislation that would protect voting rights and make it easier and more accessible to cast a ballot ahead of future elections.

That pressure is more than likely to fail in Washington, where Senate Republicans have promised to use the filibuster procedure to block taking a vote on the Democrats’ sweeping elections and voting bill.

And in the State House, Democrats may run up against a similar problem in a Republican-controlled Legislature, which expanded absentee voting to all South Carolinians during the COVID-19 pandemic but has shown some unwillingness to take down similar guard rails for future elections.

“This is not rocket science. We know what we need to do and we know how to do it, and I’m here to tell you we need some help,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, speaking in Columbia Tuesday at the Black Voters Matters’ Freedom Ride for Voting Rights event, part of the National Voter Education and Outreach Campaign that has been stopping in southern states, 60 years after the first Freedom Rides took place during the civil rights movement.

“This is not about the Democratic Party. This is not about the Republican Party,” Cobb-Hunter continued.

On Monday, Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, joined nearly 500 state legislators from across the country in a signed letter to U.S. House and Senate leaders, calling on Congress to pass the nearly 900-page “For the People Act” election and voting measure. The letter follows a number of legislative actions in state houses where lawmakers have passed more voting measures that critics argue will make it harder to vote.

“In a functioning democracy that fairly represents the voices of all people, elected officials should work together to expand the right to vote and protect the sanctity of elections,” the coalition wrote in the letter obtained by Politico. “Indeed, we have attempted again and again to work with our Republican colleagues to set policies that safely and securely expanded voting access — but they simply refuse to act in good faith. This is not how we hoped our legislative bodies would function, but this is the world as it is.”

In April, Republicans Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham took turns bashing the federal legislation that would, in part, expand ballot access, restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and make money in politics more transparent.

The bill, Graham said in April, would “be the federalization of elections for Congress, it would be in violation of the Constitution, in my view, but the contents of this bill should scare everybody in South Carolina and throughout the nation who believe in robust voting, but integrity at the ballot box.”

Nationally, more than 500 small businesses and groups recently called on Congress to pass legislation that would protect voting rights, according to a list compiled by coalition Small Business for America’s Future. The list includes 12 based in South Carolina.

While election-related legislation didn’t take center stage at the State House this year, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a significant debate when the Legislature returns in January.

Aside from redistricting, lawmakers could move forward on a bill to empower the State Election Commission over county offices.

And in the House, two dueling election-related measures — one proposed by Cobb-Hunter — have already started movement through committee hearings. Cobb-Hunter’s bill would vastly expand voter access and allow all eligible voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse.

In South Carolina, the Legislature expanded absentee early voting to all South Carolinians after State Election Commission Director Marci Andino urged lawmakers to put health and safety protocols first as the COVID-19 pandemic surged throughout the state. But lawmakers also declined to remove the witness signature requirement for absentee ballots — a requirement that was overturned by a federal judge but eventually reinstated after the U.S. Supreme Court intervened.

In May, Andino submitted a resignation letter to the board, effective at the year’s end.

Meanwhile, in the same chamber, a bill filed by state Rep. Brandon Newton, R-Lancaster, would keep in place the state’s 30-day deadline to register to vote and remove any unmanned absentee ballot drop boxes. But it also would create a period of early, in-person voting and remove some of the excuses that allow a person to vote absentee.

Both lawmakers have said there’ll be opportunities for collaboration in the year ahead.

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