SC witness signature order appealed as mail ballots go out

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's Republican leaders and the state election commission are appealing a federal court order that struck down a requirement that voters get a witness to sign their absentee ballots in the coronavirus pandemic.

Their appeal poses a challenge for election officials trying to communicate the rules to voters in time for the Nov. 3 election. Counties began mailing out absentee ballots this week.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs required the state Election Commission on Friday to “immediately and publicly” inform voters about the removal of the signature requirement.

South Carolina is one of few states that require a witness signature on absentee ballots. Lawyers for the state's Republican Party and top legislative leaders argued against removing the requirement, but the judge said their position was “undercut by an utter dearth of absentee fraud.”

Election commissioners voted 3-1 on Monday to join their appeal Monday, are still recommending that voters obtain a witness signature in case the judge's decision is overturned.

Voters meanwhile are left without a clear answer on whether to have their ballots signed by a witness, a requirement that Childs determined would increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 for many.

“It is a tricky situation,” acknowledged commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. “It's very difficult to communicate to voters clearly when you have one rule and then you have another rule."

Childs earlier struck down the witness requirement for the June primary, a decision that was not appealed. Mail-in ballots ultimately increased by 370% compared to the 2016 primary, according to Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino.

Based on those numbers, more than one million ballots could be cast by mail in South Carolina for the general election.

The witness requirement was challenged by state and national Democratic Party organizations, along with several individual voters. At least one other federal lawsuit over South Carolina’s voting rules is pending.

Another suit in state court was dismissed Wednesday by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which cited a law Gov. Henry McMaster signed last week allowing all voters to vote absentee for any reason in a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. South Carolina's voters would otherwise have to cite a specific reason, such as being 65 or older or having a physical disability.

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Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.