Community voter registration drives serve a public purpose. They help get more people to the polls. In theory, at least, something considered a good thing.
Why lawmakers want to make the process to hold such drives onerous and punitive is a mystery (except that they're following the lead of Republican lawmakers in other states). They haven't shown evidence of problems so serious that they warrant the measures contained in a bill making its way through the House.
The bill would require anyone registering voters in South Carolina to account for all registration forms and deliver them within 48 hours to election offices or be fined $50 per late application. (The bill also mentions a five-day deadline for delivering registration forms.)
Those who turn in applications after registration deadlines for state or federal elections would be fined $100 per late form. Organizations wouldn't be able to keep late applications to avoid a fine; doing so would result in a $500 penalty for each application not submitted. If the offense is willful, the fine increases. Total fines would be capped at $1,000, although violators also could face civil penalties from the state Attorney General's Office.
Groups also would have to register first with the S.C. Election Commission, providing names and addresses for the organization and its officers, as well as the names and addresses, permanent or temporary, of any "agent" registering people to vote.
While some might see nothing wrong with these requirements, they are enough to make the League of Women Voters here and across the state say they probably won't conduct registration drives under those circumstances. It's too risky.
Surely, there must be a way to accommodate legitimate concerns about timely filing of registration forms without using fines to discourage people from holding registration drives.
Rather than 48 hours -- or even five days -- give them the 10 days the Department of Motor Vehicles has to turn in registration forms. Register the group, but don't make it account for every volunteer who might -- or might not -- show up to help.
Scott Marshall, executive director of the Beaufort County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, says he'd prefer that people not use third parties to register to vote. He had a bad experience in 2010 when 486 absentee ballot requests arrived in a single envelope from South Carolina Victory 2010, an offshoot of the state Republican Party. The request for applications, the first step in a multi-step process to cast an absentee ballot by mail, arrived in mid-October.
He said then that the forms might have been in the group's possession for a month to six weeks before they were sent to his office and warned of the risks of relying on a third party to turn in your information.
In an ideal world, we'd all go to election offices or the DMV to register to vote in plenty of time before an election, or download the forms from the county website and email, mail or fax them in time to meet the deadlines. But we don't live in an ideal world, and sometimes a voter registration table set up at a local shopping center or library prompts us to register to vote in time for an important election. (We think all elections are important.)
That's where groups, such as the League of Women Voters and South Carolina Victory 2010, come in. We should encourage their efforts, not discourage them, while still making sure this vital job gets done right.