A federal judge says people voting by absentee ballot in South Carolina don't have to have a witness sign the voting papers.
U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs on Monday ordered South Carolina officials to not enforce the requirement for a witness signature on ballots in the June 9 primary or any ensuing runoff elections. She said having to seek a witness increases the chance that a voter would contract or spread the coronavirus. Childs, however, did not permanently strike down the requirement as unconstitutional.
“The evidence in the record points to the conclusion that adherence to the witness requirement in June would only increase the risk for contracting COVID-19 for members of the public with underlying medical conditions, the disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities,” the judge wrote in her order.
Childs particularly relied on a letter that Marci Andino, the executive director of the South Carolina Election Commission wrote to Gov. Henry McMaster in March. That letter said that election officials have no way to check the validity of a witness signature because they don't have it on file, unlike a voter's signature.
"While election officials check the voter’s signature, the witness signature offers no benefit to election officials as they have no ability to verify the witness signature," Andino wrote. “Removing the requirement for a witness signature would remove a barrier many voters would likely encounter while in self-isolation.”
The South Carolina Election Commission argued to keep the requirement. The additional signature on a voter’s envelope was put in place to prevent fraud, said agency attorney Liz Crum, citing a 1980 voting fraud scandal in Dillon County, when more than 35 people pleaded guilty. But Childs found that argument unpersuasive, saying health concerns outweighed what she saw as the flimsy guarantees a witness signature provides against fraud.
Childs ordered state officials to publicize the change including coordinating with local election officials and publishing notices on social media.
Childs also refused to extend the election day cutoff for receiving absentee ballots, despite arguments from some plaintiffs that first-time absentee voters were likely to mail their ballots late and have them rejected. The state opposed relaxing that rule because a requested extension would undermine other state laws establishing timetables for certifying results and printing ballots for runoffs two weeks later.
“Standing alone, South Carolina’s deadline of 7:00 p.m. on Election Day is nondiscriminatory,” Childs wrote.
Spokespersons for the election commission and South Carolina Attorney General didn't immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment on Monday. Lawyers for plaintiffs hailed the ruling.
“The temporary suspension of the witness signature requirement for absentee ballots removes a needless barrier that required people to violate social distancing protocols to vote,” Deuel Ross, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said in a statement. “Now, everyone can vote in the June elections without the fear of endangering their health.”
McMaster earlier signed a law allowing anyone to get an absentee ballot without an excuse for just this June’s primary. The original lawsuit also asked the judge to allow absentee ballots for any reason.