As the presidential campaign heats up nationwide, the head of Greenville County elections said Tuesday morning voting has already begun for South Carolina’s largest collection of registered voters.
Over the weekend, the Greenville County Election Commission shipped 20,000 mail-in ballots to voters, the agency’s first of many shipments to come ahead of the Nov. 3 General Election, said Conway Belangia, director of the county’s election commission. All mail-in ballots must be received at County Square by 7 p.m. on Election Day to be counted, Belangia said.
Greenville County Elections Director Conway Belangia speaks to Greenville Chamber of Commerce members via videoconference Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, about his office’s preparations for the upcoming General Election.
By Anna B. Mitchell
“I am in the election business, and I want people to participate,” Belangia said.
Greenville County represents nearly one of every 10 registered voters in South Carolina. More than 332,000 people are registered to vote in the county, 9.86 percent of the state’s 3.37 million voters.
Belangia said he expects turnout could be 75 to 80 percent this year, based on general interest and record turnout his office saw during primaries last spring. Belangia said he has maxed out his budget on hiring poll workers, and many this fall will be new since some of his more seasoned, older poll workers have declined to work during the pandemic. Voters who choose to vote on Election Day, he said, should prepare to wait up to 90 minutes if they arrive during peak hours — before work, at lunch and after work.
Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and everyone in line by closing time will be able to cast a ballot, he said.
Belangia’s office is managing ballots for at least 25 contested local, state and federal races across 151 precincts, in addition to the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
“I believe lines will be the order of the day,” Belangia said. “I believe patience will be the order of the day.”
Belangia spoke Tuesday morning via videoconference to Greenville Chamber of Commerce members for the organization’s “Community Matters” series. He has run the election office in Greenville County — the largest in the state — for 28 years and is among the most well-known and respected election officials statewide.
Polls will be shut down regularly throughout the day Nov. 3 for a few minutes at a time to allow workers to sanitize surfaces, Belangia said. Social distancing and masks will be required, he said, and voters will cast ballots using a stylus rather than their fingers on the touchscreen machines.
Given expectations of record turnout amid the pandemic, Belangia’s office applied for and received a $660,000 grant from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life to help with safety and security. Greenville County Council’s finance committee approved receipt of the grant Monday.
Among other things, the grant money will pay for four satellite early-voting sites: five people at each site for three weeks will cost $80,000. Election officials told council members they had hired 20 staffers to count mail-in absentee ballots but expect to hire another 35 people to process Greenville County ballots this election. It will also hire staff to collect ballots and ensure laws are followed. Finally, the grant will allow the election office to pay its 2,400 poll workers an extra $100 on Election Day. P
People who want to help, Belangia said, can do so by encouraging neighbors and co-workers to vote and to drive those facing obstacles to the polls. They can also volunteer on election night, he said.
Sign up for weekly roundups of our top stories, news and culture from the Upstate. This newsletter is hand-curated by a member of our Greenville news staff.
“Election night we have a lot of duties around here that we need a little help with,” Belangia said. “If you want to give up 4 hours of your time from 6:30 to 11, find me here at County Square, tell me you want to help and we will find something for you to do, even if it’s directing traffic for poll workers and clerks and people who want to see results.”
The coronavirus pandemic has already changed many of the county’s election procedures, starting with in-person voting at the four satellite locations around the county starting Oct. 12. These additional sites will give voters a chance to vote early under less crowded conditions. Those who wish to vote in-person sooner can start on Oct. 5 at County Square. An in-person voting booth will be open at County Square through Monday, Nov. 2.
Belangia said anyone with a demanding, unpredictable job — doctors, nurses, and first responders, among others — should consider early voting, whether in person or by mail.
“The idea of a COVID-19 situation is upon us,” Belangia said. “It has changed our world totally, especially elections.”
Monaghan Mill resident Sharon Lamotte, center, asks about her polling place at the Greenville County Election Commission office on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in preparation for the upcoming General Election.
By Anna B. Mitchell
There had been some confusion on when in-person early voting would start as the state’s election commission had asked county election offices late last month to try to get early in-person voting available by Sept. 28. That did not happen. A reporter was at County Square on Monday when a would-be voter was told to come back next week when she asked about voting.
Also uncertain: Whether mail-in ballots will require a witness signature. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has waffled on the procedure, and election officials — including Belangia — are advising voters get a witness signature just in case there is a final ruling requiring them.
Belangia said the U.S. Postal Service has been working closely with the Greenville County Election Commission since January in preparation for Election Day.
A sign directs future poll workers where to go for training on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Greenville County Elections Director Conway Belangia said he has hired as many poll workers as his budget will allow in preparation for the Nov. 3 presidential election.
By Anna B. Mitchell
Voters must submit their application for mail-in ballots no later than Oct. 24, Belangia said. But he urged voters not to wait.
“If you want to vote by mail, go ahead and start that now,” he said.
The commitment of mail carriers to deliver ballots, he said, has been demonstrated repeatedly in past years, with mail-in ballots spotted on the day of elections pulled and, in some cases, delivered directly to his office on Election Day. Belangia recalled another incident where two ballots landed at a postal service distribution point in Charlotte on Election Day and a mail carrier was directed to drive them personally to Greenville that day.
“That is over and above the call of duty for the Post Office,” Belangia said. “We don’t expect any change in that.”
Other tips for votersYou must register 30 days before the election. Get it done by Friday, Oct. 2 to beat the deadline.Visit GreenvilleCounty.org/VoterRegistration for updates on local polling places. At least eight sites have changed. Belangia said some churches opted out of hosting elections this year because of coronavirus concerns, and the Greenville County school district has offered to host polling locations at schools.Check that your mailing address is up-to-date at SCvotes.gov. Also, check your sample ballot. Do this before the registration deadline in case there are any problems.Bring a government-issued photo ID to your polling place. It is required. College students can register in the places where they attend school.
Post and Courier Greenville reporter Nate Cary contributed to this story.