‘I wanted my vote to be counted’: In South Carolina, a peek at COVID-19’s impact on elections
Voters wait at the combined voting location at Spring Valley High School to participate in South Carolina's primary on June 9, 2020. At 8 a.m., the line went around to the other side of the building. (Joshua Boucher/The State)
As coronavirus prompts polling place closures for primaries, burdens fall heavily on voters of color.
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The night before South Carolina’s June 9 primary, Melinda Anderson of Columbia got a robocall from a local county council candidate that said her polling place had been moved to a new location — something she hadn’t realized.
When her son got home from work the next day, he drove Anderson, 71, to the curbside line for disabled voters at about 4:45 p.m. and waited. And waited. After more than three hours of inching along, alternating between running the air conditioner to ward off the 90-degree June heat and turning off the car to give it a break, they still weren’t close to the front of the line. Hungry, they left at 8:15 p.m.
“I’m still upset that I didn’t get to vote,” Anderson said. “Whether my vote mattered or not, I wanted my vote to be counted. That’s what I’m worried about in November.”
Anderson’s precinct, Briarwood, has around 2,500 voters. Nearly two out of three are, like Anderson, Black. The move from the usual polling place to Spring Valley High School, prompted by poll worker shortages attributable to the pandemic, meant that voters in this precinct, on average, had to travel nearly 3 miles more to vote in person. That’s the second-largest distance increase for any Richland County precinct, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
Spring Valley typically hosts one precinct and serves a little more than 2,000 voters. For the primary, though, election officials assigned four additional precincts to vote there, all four of which had a majority of Black voters. The upshot: Spring Valley High School was assigned to handle more than five times the number of voters who use it in a typical election. Ultimately, it had more voters assigned to it than any other Richland County polling location, Public Integrity’s analysis found.
“That consolidation of five precincts into one should never have happened,” said Keith Amos, 48, another Briarwood voter who said he spent five hours waiting to vote and said he only learned about the change in polling place the morning of the election. He called the lines “unethical.”
Election experts say it’s clear many voters will need safe in-person options in November. But election officials are struggling to find polling sites willing and suitable to host voters during the pandemic, as well as enough poll workers to staff them. Terry Graham, Richland County’s interim director of voter registration and elections, said the county began consolidating polling places about a month before the primary election because the owners of some facilities the county usually uses weren’t responding to them, and poll workers were dropping out. County officials were still making changes the week before the election, he said.