Prepared to Vote

Voting in South Carolina's Primaries:

How Early and Curbside Voting Make the Polls More Accessible

By Christina M. Das

Attorney, Prepared to Vote and Voting Rights Defender Projects

The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 was a critical moment for Black South Carolinians. In 1964, before the act’s passage, only 39% of Black Americans of voting age were registered in the state. By 1968, the number was nearly 51%; today, it’s 60.5%. Notably, there were also significant gains in Black political participation in South Carolina after the VRA took hold.  Three Black legislators were elected to the state’s general assembly, becoming the first Black individuals to serve as legislators since the late 1800s. Presently, around 25% of South Carolina state legislators are Black.

However, despite important gains in Black political participation following the Voting Rights Act, suppression targeting voters of color has also remained an unrelenting theme throughout the subsequent decades. For example, as W. Lewis Burke described in his article on the history of voting rights in South Carolina, in one South Carolina county, white poll managers reportedly regularly refused to assist Black voters throughout the 1990s – and verbally harassed and insulted them by asking them, ‘“Why can’t you read and write?’”

Today, voter suppression comes in the form of strict voter ID laws, long lines, poor training for poll workers, accessibility barriers for voters with disabilities, and more – all issues faced by voters in the 2020 and 2021 elections.

On June 14, 2022, voters in the Palmetto State will head to the polls in the first statewide election after a redistricting year. While voters may continue to confront these challenges, some of which are outlined in more detail below, they can also come prepared to address them. In fact, a new early voting option and increased awareness about curbside voting can help increase accessibility to the ballot box and ensure that more voters of color can make their voices heard.

Long Lines and Wait Times

Throughout South Carolina’s November 2020 general election period, long lines were a persistent issue. Though the state implemented COVID-19 measures allowing for in-person absentee voting in satellite locations ahead of Election Day, many of these locations were closed as Election Day neared, which caused extended waits in counties such as Berkeley, Greenville, and Horry. Moreover, as LDF highlighted in its post-election Democracy Defended report, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, there was no plan to manage lines or ensure social distancing — and some voters waited for more than an hour to cast their ballots. And, during the November 2021 election, South Carolina eliminated the pandemic measures that previously allowed in-person absentee voting ahead of Election Day, exacerbating wait times at polling places throughout the state.

Long lines limit South Carolinian voters’ access to the ballot box — and often serve as another suppressive barrier to voting for members of marginalized communities. For example, low-income voters, who are disproportionately members of communities of color, are particularly affected by long lines on Election Day. Low-income workers frequently have less flexibility in their schedules and, amid work obligations, childcare, and other responsibilities, often cannot afford to spend hours waiting at a polling location — and may be deterred from voting by the prospect of facing a long wait.

Additionally, voters who are employed in positions with non-traditional and weekend hours — such as healthcare professionals or essential workers who play particularly critical roles amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — are faced with the decision to wait hours in line or risk missing their shifts on Election Day. Moreover, parents and those serving as primary caregivers, during the pandemic and beyond, must navigate their responsibilities in the home along with getting to their polling places on Election Day.  These situations all reflect realities faced by South Carolinian voters in recent elections.

In a recent interview with LDF, Sulaiman Ahmad, a South Carolina voter who is a law student at the University of South Carolina School of Law, sheds light on his experience with lengthy voting wait times. “Voting in the [2020] election cycle was incredibly difficult, with long lines consuming time in order to exercise a fundamental right,” he emphasizes. “I witnessed various South Carolinians waiting in line, along with myself, in order to exercise our civic duty of voting. Seeing many older voters and those with physical disabilities having to wait for hours on end was both inspiring and sad. It reflected the will of South Carolinians to stay involved in the democratic process [no matter what] …”

Columbia, South Carolina voters stand in line to vote on the second day of in-person absentee and early voting on October 6, 2020. Many voters faced extremely long lines and wait times to cast their ballot. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“I witnessed various South Carolinians waiting in line, along with myself, in order to exercise our civic duty of voting. Seeing many older voters and those with physical disabilities having to wait for hours on end was both inspiring and sad. It reflected the will of South Carolinians to stay involved in the democratic process [no matter what] …”

- Sulaiman Ahmad, South Carolina Voter

Avoiding Election Day Lines with South Carolina’s New Early Voting Process

This election season, thanks to the tireless work of advocates and organizers, South Carolina has implemented a brand-new, no-excuse in-person early voting process that will help address some of these challenges. South Carolina voters now have two weeks to vote early in person, from May 31 to June 10, 2022 (early voting sites are not open on Saturday, June 4 and Sunday, June 5, 2022). Voters can cast early ballots at local county voting centers from 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“I applaud legislators for giving all registered voters in South Carolina the opportunity to vote in-person, early, without an excuse,” Alesia Rico Flores, a member of LDF’s South Carolina election protection coalition — a group formed by LDF and partner organizations — says in a recent interview. “I’m a working parent. Voting early gives me more flexibility. The early voting lines will hopefully be shorter, allowing me to exercise my right to vote and quickly return to my daily responsibilities.”

Flores also hopes that her voting experience in this election will be more seamless because of early voting. “In a previous election, I experienced standing in a long line for a long period of time. The line was a frustrating deterrent to exercising my right to vote, but I hung in there,” she explains to LDF. “We should continue to empower the community through expanded voting options in South Carolina.”

If you are a South Carolina voter and are interested in voting early in person, please visit the South Carolina Election Commission’s website to find your voting location. You should bring valid photo identification with you to vote early in person (or on Election Day). If you do not have a photo ID, you can bring your non-photo voter registration card with you to the polling place and use a provisional ballot to vote after signing an affidavit stating you have a reasonable impediment to obtaining a photo ID.  A reasonable impediment is any valid reason beyond your control that presents an obstacle to you obtaining a Photo ID. Some examples include a disability or illness, a conflict with your work schedule, a lack of transportation, a lack of a birth certificate, a religious objection to being photographed, and more.

Election Day poll workers in Columbia, South Carolina prepare signs on November 3, 2020 before polls open. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Voters waiting outside the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Columbia, South Carolina greet each other during the first day of Absentee and Early Voting. (Source: Getty Images)

Poor Curbside Voting Access

South Carolina has a history of poor implementation for curbside voting across the state, resulting in accessibility issues for voters with disabilities and older voters. Under South Carolina law, any voter who, as a result of a disability or being age 65 or older, cannot enter their polling place or is unable to stand in line to vote may vote outside the polling place inside a vehicle in the closest available parking area. However, improper signage for curbside voting, along with long wait times, were consistent issues during the state’s 2020 and 2021 elections.

For example, during the 2021 municipal elections, LDF’s poll monitors observed long wait times, improper signage, and inadequate staffing for voters attempting to utilize curbside voting. Poll workers were not properly trained on administering curbside voting and poll managers were not monitoring the curbside parking area in intervals of 15 minutes, as required by South Carolina’s Poll Manager Handbook.

Confusion surrounding curbside voting and insufficient management of the process were also problems in the state’s 2020 election. “There is limited knowledge regarding how curbside voting works. The signage is here, and, so far, I have been able to direct voters to the curbside. One asked me about it, and another I saw was struggling to get out of the car. I informed them that curbside voting was an option,” Wes, a volunteer poll monitor in Greenville County, said in an interview published in LDF’s Democracy Defended report. “The poll workers are not keeping watch of the curb regularly, so I have been alerting them when cars pull up to the curbside.”

LDF’s Democracy Defended report also revealed that, in 2020, a Florence County official reportedly accosted voters seeking to cast their ballots curbside on Election Day. Poll managers are supposed to support the curbside voting process, but when the voters — who were all eligible to vote curbside — arrived to vote at their Florence County precinct, the county official reportedly approached their cars, stopped them from voting curbside, and regularly accused voters of being fit enough to cast their ballots inside. The voters were only able to vote curbside following an intervention by another official.

Ensuring Curbside Voting Accessibility

All eligible South Carolinians can vote curbside during in-person early voting or on Election Day, regardless of their polling location. Any voter who is eligible to vote curbside and wishes to do so should be vigilant about long wait times, as poll workers are supposed to monitor parking lots for curbside voters every 15 minutes and ensure that ballot machines are brought out to voters’ cars. If you or someone you know encounters any difficulty with curbside voting, you can reach out to the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE or get in touch with LDF directly at vote@naacpldf.org.

South Carolinians can also help ensure curbside voting accessibility by joining LDF’s on-the-ground advocacy efforts as non-partisan poll monitors. As a poll monitor, you will be trained to identify issues with curbside voting as well as other common types of voter suppression — and help LDF remedy issues in real-time as well as create a record for future awareness and advocacy. You can use this link to sign up as a non-partisan poll monitor for the upcoming election on June 14, 2022.

Through public education campaigns and legislative advocacy, South Carolinians mobilized and passed two weeks of early voting. As this progress demonstrates, the will of the voters and advocates remains steadfast, despite countless hurdles thrown their way. With South Carolina’s primary election cycle already underway, voters should make a plan to vote in the manner that best suits their needs. Moreover, once you make your voting plan, encourage others to do the same — and be sure to spread the word far and wide about early voting and curbside voting options. Doing so will help ensure that members of your community are able to exercise their most fundamental right and leave no power on the table.

Published: June 3, 2022

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