COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge said she will do her best to decide quickly if a requirement that absentee ballots in South Carolina have the signature of a witness is constitutional with people trying to stay isolated because of the coronavirus.
South Carolina’s primary is June 9, leaving U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs just over three weeks to decide the case before the election.
Also on Saturday, health officials reported no new COVID-19 deaths in South Carolina. It was the first day no deaths were reported in the state since March 25, when there were 424 confirmed cases.
There have been more than 8,650 cases of the coronavirus confirmed in South Carolina, and at least 380 deaths, according to an update Saturday from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Childs’ decision was made a little less daunting Wednesday when the governor signed into law a bill passed the day before allowing anyone to get an absentee ballot without an excuse for just this June’s primary. The original lawsuit also asked the judge to all absentee ballots for any reason.
Childs said she understood the need for a quick decision after hearing arguments from more than a dozen lawyers both in an empty courtroom and on video Friday, The State newspaper reported.
“We are going to do our best to turn this around quickly because we know there’s a lot at stake for all the people involved,” Childs said.
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.
Attorneys on the other side said that was long ago and fears of COVID-19 make getting someone to witness an absentee ballot dangerous.
“Our clients clearly will suffer irreparable harm if they are going to have to choose between catching a deadly illness on one hand, and casting a ballot on the other,” said Deuel Ross, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund.
Along with the request to eliminate the witness signature, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union along with civil rights groups and Democratic Party groups also want to waive a requirement that ballots must arrive by mail by the 7 p.m. deadline when polls close on primary day to be counted.
Crum said the Election Commission is against relaxing that rule because a requested 10-day or even six-day extension would undermine other state laws establishing timetables for certifying results and printing ballots for runoffs two weeks later.