Appeals court: Witness signature required on SC mail ballots

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A federal court on Thursday reinstated a requirement that South Carolinians voting by mail in this year's general election must obtain a witness signature for their ballots.

The order from the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a ruling last week by U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs, who wrote that the requirement would increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 for several groups of voters.

The South Carolina Republican Party and top lawmakers appealed on Monday after Childs sided with national and state Democratic Party organizations and some individual voters who sued the state over its voting rules. The South Carolina State Election Commission voted to join the appeal Monday evening.

Republicans have maintained removing the signature requirement would pose a risk to election integrity because the signatures safeguard against potential voter fraud.

The district judge wrote the argument was “undercut by an utter dearth of absentee fraud" in the June primaries. Childs also struck down the witness signature requirement for that election in late May, a ruling that was not appealed.

“We’re pleased the Fourth Circuit rejected the Democrats’ latest effort to try to change the law through the courts and create voter confusion on the eve of a presidential election,” state Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said in a statement Thursday.

GOP lawmakers in the state legislature also cited voter fraud concerns when debating amendments by Democrats to a bill that would expand absentee voting to all voters because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster last week, but the amendments to drop the witness signature and add ballot drop boxes failed.

The law is itself not a guarantee that all absentee ballots will be counted this November, according to attorneys representing two voters with underlying health conditions that heighten their risk of contracting COVID-19. The voters had asked for no-excuse absentee voting under the law. The Supreme Court dismissed their case on Wednesday.

The attorneys on Thursday requested a rehearing, arguing in a court filing that “two possibilities threaten to throw this election into chaos."

The first, they said, is that McMaster, who has issued at least 13 rolling executive orders declaring a state of emergency since the start of the outbreak, might let an order expire ahead of the election.

The second possibility, which they called “far more troubling," is a lawsuit challenging the governor's power to repeatedly declare states of emergency.

Lawyers for the plaintiff, Ike’s Korner Grille in Spartanburg County, argue the states of emergency aren't lawful because state legislators haven't signed off on them. South Carolina law states that declared states of emergency can't last more than 15 days without the legislature's consent.

If the states of emergency declared by McMaster are indeed unlawful, the attorneys for the voters say, the emergency absentee protections passed by the legislature would be eliminated.

In-person early voting for those who qualify begins Oct. 5, and county officials have already begun mailing ballots to voters as of this week.