Early ballots pour in across the state; no local wrinkles reported

Scott Marshall is overseeing his first major election since becoming the executive director of Beaufort County's Board of Voter Registration and Elections.

So far, so good, he said.

Thus far, there have been few of the problems that plagued previous elections, as in 2008 when software and ballot glitches hampered early voting.

As of Wednesday, 8,262 people had requested absentee ballots, Marshall said. Elections officials had issued 7,652 ballots, and voters had returned 6,412.

Beaufort County ranks fifth in absentee-ballot requests and fourth in ballots returned among South Carolina's 46 counties, Marshall said. The county ranks ninth in the number of active registered voters.

"To me, that speaks highly of our absentee balloting process," Marshall said.

He expects 45 to 50 percent of the county's voters to turn out for Tuesday's election. A closely watched gubernatorial campaign and a seven-way race for mayor of Hilton Head Island should rouse interest, although having multiple candidates for only three of 20 county races could dampen enthusiasm, he said.

The state may be on its way to setting a record for early voting.

Nearly 127,000 South Carolinians had requested and been sent an absentee ballot so they can vote early, The (Columbia) State reported earlier this week. By comparison, nearly 76,000 voters, a record number, voted absentee in 2006, the last time South Carolina elected a governor.

Two Democratic-leaning counties, Richland and Charleston, have seen the most activity so far with nearly 25,000 ballots sent out by their respective voter registration offices.

Two Republican-leaning ones, Greenville and Lexington, follow with nearly 17,000 collectively sent out.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission, thinks it's the result of growing voter awareness.

"Voters in recent years have learned about the absentee process, and more and more voters are doing it. It's convenient for them," he said. "Plus, starting six weeks before an election, we start talking a lot about the process and how to do it. The political parties and candidates push absentee voting, as well."

This election season, the state GOP has been more aggressive in encouraging Republicans to mail in absentee ballots. A Republican website received more than 11,000 requests for absentee ballots.

"We recognized what the Democrats did in 2008 with in-person absentee voting. It's meant we've had to become more aggressive," said Joel Sawyer, state GOP executive director. "Democrats basically bused people and got them to vote (absentee) in person in 2008."

The S.C. Democratic Party did not bus voters to the polls, but many churches and local organizations did, said Carol Fowler, party chairwoman, resulting in a larger chunk of the state's absentee vote going to Democrats.

"In 2008, there were lots of local groups that encouraged people to go vote absentee, particularly older people," she said. "It's a perfectly acceptable thing to do."

Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette staff writer Josh McCann and Gina Smith of The (Columbia) State contributed.