During my 10 years as one of our state’s trial court judges, there were many times I was required to rule to protect an individual’s rights, possibly from some form of unlawful government action. The protection of individual constitutional rights is essential to preserving our democracy and the rule of law. It is why our state Supreme Court must step in to make voting safe for everyone this November.

The problem is simple. The highly infectious and deadly coronavirus makes it dangerous for large numbers of people to congregate closely for any period of time. This means the traditional method most of us use to vote – in-person voting at our local precinct – is risky for all and dangerous for a small but significant number of South Carolina voters.

Many of us, including people like me who are over 65, meet one of 17 legal criteria to cast an absentee vote, either early in-person or by mail. But most people don’t, including those with high COVID-19 risk or those who care for someone who is high risk. Complicating matters, many of the 18,000 to 20,000 poll workers needed to conduct the November election will choose not to serve because of age, health conditions or both. This will result in precinct consolidations — i.e., more people at fewer locations in longer lines with fewer workers. And yet, election officials expect a far greater demand for absentee balloting, which requires more workers to count ballots.

It is a perfect storm that threatens the very integrity of our election in November.

The branch of government where I now serve – the legislature – should have already fixed this problem. In March, the director of the state Election Commission warned us that changes to election laws were needed to conduct a safe and successful June primary election. After a lawsuit was filed, the legislature passed a bill that allowed all primary voters to cast absentee ballots. A federal court struck down a witness requirement for mail absentee ballots — a procedure election officials say is useless to detect fraud (unlike a voter signature, they have no way to verify a witness). We had worker shortages and precinct consolidations in June, but the primary was largely successful.

In July, the Election Commission director warned again that “immediate” action was necessary to prepare for a general election where more than 70% of 3.3 million registered voters are expected to participate. Sadly, the legislature voted down amendments that would have extended the same procedures from June to voters in November and ignored other recommendations by election officials.

It is important to point out the notion there is a partisan advantage to be won here is deeply misguided. First, we have to put our state over party, period. But, for the curious partisans, a failure to act will likely hurt Republican voters most. During the June primary, Republican-leaning precincts were almost twice as likely to be relocated than Democratic-leaning ones. Moreover, Republican voters have a long track record of success with mailin ballots as a safe, efficient way to vote such that we should embrace this opportunity to expand ballot access, not oppose it.

The South Carolina Constitution requires election procedures that guarantee free and open access to the franchise through a safe and secure election. Unfortunately, time is running out to enact procedures that allow election officials time to prepare a safe election. Two high-risk voters are asking our Supreme Court to step in to stop a catastrophe and protect all of us by expanding safe ballot access. Because our democracy is too important, it should.

Rep. Gary E. Clary is a retired state circuit court judge and a member of the S.C. House of Representatives, House District 3, since 2015. He is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and serves as chairman of the Election Law Subcommittee.

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