After a couple weeks of confusion and finger-pointing between the municipalities holding elections this year and Lexington County, which conducts their elections, county residents are left with exactly what they had before: one early-voting location.
After a couple weeks of confusion and finger-pointing between the municipalities holding elections this year and Lexington County, which conducts their elections, county residents are left with exactly what they had before: one early voting location.
During an emergency meeting of the county Board of Voter Registration and Elections Sept. 25, Dean Crepes, the chair of the board, told a room mostly filled by representatives from many of the county’s municipalities that the board voted in May to have just the one early voting location at the county elections office at 605 W Main St. in Lexington ahead of the Nov. 7 election day.
Voters hoping to vote early in any of the county’s municipal elections can go to this location Oct. 23-Nov. 3, Monday-Friday 8:30-5 p.m. to cast early ballots.
That number is markedly lower than the five early voting locations the county used in last year’s November election, which featured such prominent statewide offices as governor. Those locations were spread out in the county, with options for people to vote early in West Columbia, Irmo, Batesburg-Leesville and Pelion. The reason for the decrease is a lack of funding.
County elections officials — and a representative from the S.C. Election Commission — confirmed to the Chronicle that the state, as it always has when it comes to municipal elections, isn’t reimbursing counties to conduct these elections. So while the state made available money to help pay for up to six early voting locations in the county last year, this year, there is no state funding.
“The state does not provide reimbursement to counties for municipal elections, which is not anything new,” John Michael Catalano, public information officer for the state Election Commission, told the Chronicle. “Counties get reimbursed by the state for elections that have state and county level offices on the ballot. For state or county level elections, the state does provide reimbursement for staffing early voting centers but does not reimburse for any costs incurred by the county for renting the location.”
So this year, Lexington County opted for just the one location required by the law that made way for excuse-free early voting ahead of the 2022 primaries.
“They mandate things but don't fund things,” Crepes said at the Sept. 25 meeting. “The only time the early voting centers are paid for is during a presidential or a gubernatorial election, and we get partial of it reimbursed back from state funding that the General Assembly allocates to [the state Election Commission] for us to get money back. The rest of it is picked up by the county.”
And while the county chose to flip the bill for the one early voting center required by state law, doing it in the most cost-effective way by hosting it with its staff at the elections office, it still expects the municipalities to pay for any additional locations, as they do when it comes to precincts within their borders on election day.
While county officials said they gave the municipalities notice of the decision in May, confusion spread in recent weeks. Receiving questions about why there weren’t more early voting sites, the county reached out to the municipalities to gauge their interest as to paying to add more early voting sites.
Multiple municipalities confirmed to the Chronicle they received this message from the county, though only Cayce City Council took up the issue, voting 3-2 Sept. 20 to reject a motion that would have OK’d spending no more than $12,300 to have more early voting locations, with the hope to have one in neighboring West Columbia closer to the city’s voters. The mayor and members of council all expressed frustration at the timing of the discussion so close to the election and questioned why the cost was so high and why the municipalities were expected to pay.
Chapin — which sees its citizens put in a bind to vote early, as they have to get around Lake Murray and across its dam to get to Lexington — elected not to take up the issue.
“The Town didn’t have the money in the budget to support that effort,” Chapin Town Administrator Nicholle Burroughs told the Chronicle. “Based on the voting numbers in our area the cost was too significant for those that would use the service. It was not presented to Council.”
The most vocal critic amid the confusion about early voting in the county has been Barry Walker. He is Irmo’s mayor, seeking re-election Nov. 7, and is also president of the Lexington County Municipal Association.
Walker has expressed disappointment that folks in the Irmo-Chapin area must travel all the way to Lexington to vote early. He, too, has questioned the cost of the early voting sites, floating the idea of Irmo conducting its own elections as a solution. The county has conducted elections on local municipalities’ behalf since 2006, with officials emphasizing at the meeting that county ordinance now precludes municipalities from holding their own elections.
During the meeting, Walker likened the state expecting municipalities to pay for early voting locations to a poll tax on the citizens in those cities and towns.
The county elections officials and the elections board — which showed up to the meeting with just three members, short of a quorum and making clear to the crowd that it had no intention to vote on adding additional early voting locations that night — explained that they voted to have the one location after hearing from smaller municipalities that they wouldn’t pay their share to add more locations.
The board and officials handed out figures showing why it would cost about $12,000 for each additional location — emphasizing the need to rent secure space that only poll workers will have access to across the entire two weeks, which precludes schools and some government buildings as potential sites, along with the costs to pay workers and transport equipment.
The county representatives explained that they went with an all-or-nothing approach to figuring out if they could pay for the additional early voting sites, deciding that since the smaller municipalities among the 13 having elections this cycle (such as Summit, which has just more than 430 residents) couldn’t afford to pay their share (about $1,000 for each additional early voting location) they would stick with the one at the elections office.
The law requires that each early voting location accommodate anyone voting in any county election, hence the expectation that all municipalities would help pay for any additional locations, no matter where they ended up being located.
Many conversations throughout the meeting focused on whether it would be feasible moving forward to find a more equitable solution, tailoring the amount each municipality would be expected to pay for additional early voting locations to their number of registered voters, with seemingly everyone in attendance agreeing this is an avenue to pursue in the future.
Pushed on why the elections board didn’t go to the municipalities with this idea for 2023, Crepes said that with a tight time frame to figure out how to handle the first year of early voting for municipal elections, he didn’t want to get into it with the various town and city councils figuring out how much they’d be willing to pay.
County elections officials emphasized that the low voter turnout for municipal elections was also taken into account when considering what to do with early voting this year. According to numbers they handed out at the meeting, about 4,300 (less than 11% of eligible registered voters) cast ballots in the county’s 2021 municipal elections, with just 162 of those coming via in-person absentee (the excuse-required method of voting at the elections office that preceded last year’s changes).
As for any ways to ease the financial burden for early voting in municipal elections moving forward, the chair said local elected officials and the public need to look to the state Legislature.
“You need to go talk to the local delegation members, your House and your Senate members and say, ‘We need changes. And you guys need to fund this,’” Crepes said.
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