Like voters in the rest of the nation, South Carolinians increasingly are casting their ballots early.
The state is on track to break 2008's record number of votes -- about 342,000 -- cast before Election Day.
Unlike 31 other states, South Carolina does not have true early voting -- a multi-day period when voters can vote early and avoid lines at the polls on Election Day. However, S.C. voters who are 65 or older, have to work, are on vacation or have another reason why they cannot vote on Nov. 6 can go to their county's voter registration office and vote absentee before Election Day. They also can mail in their ballot.
As of Monday afternoon, about 208,000 absentee ballots had been cast around the state. That is up almost 50 percent from 2008, when 142,000 absentee ballots had been cast at this point.
Voters have until 5 p.m. Friday to return their application for an absentee ballot either by mail or by walking it into their local voter registration office. They can also vote absentee in person at their local voter registration office until 5 p.m. Monday.
A handful of counties, including Richland and Lexington counties, will open their voter registration offices on Saturday for voters to cast absentee ballots.
Lillian McBride, executive director of Richland County's elections office, said the Saturday hours should keep down the long lines that absentee voters experienced in 2008. "It's about the convenience of the voters, voters who can't get to our office between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week."
Why are so many South Carolinians voting early?
Growing awareness that the option exists, says Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state Election Commission.
"It really began in earnest in 2008, when candidates, political parties and campaigns began pushing the idea of voting ahead of Election Day," Whitmire said. "Voters realized they could do it early. It's convenient."
Both the S.C. Democratic and the Republican parties have spent the past several weeks getting word out to voters -- via mail pieces, phone calls and Web sites -- that they can cast ballots now. Both presidential candidates also have done made appeals.
The fact that neighboring Georgia and North Carolina both have early voting also is having an impact. "You have shared media markets," said Whitmire. "You have South Carolinians talking to people in Georgia and North Carolina."
It is too early to say which presidential candidate will benefit the most from early voting. Conventional political wisdom says early voting favors Democratic candidates while absentee voting favors Republicans.
However, in 2008, absentee ballots favored then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in South Carolina. In absentee voting, Democrat Obama took 39 of South Carolina's 46 counties. Republican John McCain won the absentee ballots in only seven counties -- Aiken, Horry, Lexington, Newberry, Oconee, Pickens and York, according to state data.
When all votes were counted, absentee and in person, McCain won the state, taking 26 counties and 54 percent of the vote to Obama's 20 counties and 45 percent.
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