As the state’s coronavirus cases mount, the leaders of the S.C. House and Senate want the State Supreme Court to dismiss a voter petition that seeks to expand the right to vote absentee in the upcoming November election.
The petition was brought by two voters, Regina Duggins of Charleston County and Chaunta R. Hamilton of Berkeley County, who assert they are at “high-risk” of catching the highly contagious and sometimes fatal COVID-19 virus.
In papers filed Tuesday with the S.C. Supreme Court, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler, both Republicans, urge the Supreme Court to dismiss the petition and say the right to seek changes in state election laws resides in the Legislature and not in the courts.
“While the coronavirus certainly presents challenges to previously-routine parts of American life, it does not and cannot wipe out the separation-of-powers doctrine, nor can it render the entirety of the state’s Election Code unconstitutional, as urged by the Petitioners,” Peeler, of Cherokee County, said in his legal filing. “The case should be dismissed accordingly.”
In his legal filing, Lucas, of Darlington, urged the Supreme Court to hear arguments on the matter — but only for the purposes of dismissing the petition.
“The Court should accept jurisdiction solely for the purpose of dismissing the complaint to recognize and acknowledge that the legislative branch is responsible for addressing issues regarding changes to this State’s election laws,” Lucas’s filing said. “The General Assembly can address these issues when it returns to the State House next month.”
In their petition, the two voters are asking the court to allow any voter the right to cast an absentee ballot, to implement early voting have curbside voting polling locations, to allow online absentee applications and to grant officials more time to count the expected deluge of absentee ballots.
Current state law allows only voters in certain specific categories — such as those traveling abroad, in jail, age 65 or older, or on duty in the military — the right to vote absentee.
South Carolina needs drastic action immediately to forestall a “calamity” due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the voters’ petition says. It adds that the pandemic threatens the November general election by “diminishing the number of election workers willing to expose themselves to certain harm and the number of available polling locations willing to welcome the public.”
Ordinarily, legal actions must be heard first in lower courts and proceed upwards on appeals to the State Supreme Court. But in matters of urgency and high public interest, the Supreme Court can agree to accept a case in what is called “original jurisdiction,” hear arguments and issue a ruling. The court has not said yet whether it will hear arguments on the voters’ petition.
The S.C. State Election Commission, another party in the case named by the two voters, also filed an answer Tuesday.
The State Election Commission’s filing also opposed the voters’ petition but in different language used by Peeler and Lucas.
“None of the provisions in the South Carolina Constitution on which the (voters) … rely justifies the sweeping, unprecedented relief they seek,” the commission said. It also urged the high court to take up the matter and issue a ruling.
In South Carolina, nearly 2,000 people have died from confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 101,000 people have been infected since March. More than 163,000 have died from the respiratory disease around the country.
The General Assembly is scheduled to return to Columbia in mid-September.
Duggins and Hamilton are are represented by Chris Kenney, a partner in the law firm of state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, and Shaundra Young Scott, an attorney and director of voter protection with the S.C. Democratic Party.
Lucas is represented by attorneys Robert Tyson, Bobby Stepp and Carlisle Traywick III. Peeler is represented by attorneys Todd Carroll and Kevin Hall. The Election Commission is represented by attorneys Grayson Lambert and Liz Crum.
This story will be updated.
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John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including those of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins and child killer Tim Jones. Monk’s hobbies include hiking, books, languages, music and a lot of other things.