Judge rules witness signatures required on mail-in ballots

VIDEO: Judge rules witness signatures required on mail-in ballots

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - South Carolinians voting absentee by mail must now have their signatures on ballot return envelopes witnessed after the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday issued an order reversing a lower court’s ruling.

On Sept. 19, the U.S. District Court ordered the witness requirement to be suspended for the 2020 General Election. Thursday’s ruling reversed that order.

Charleston County Board of Voter Registration & Elections Executive Director Joe Debney said the State Election Commission had already been warning voters and election offices that the ruling might be overturned, so the Charleston County election officials were advising voters to get the witness signature anyway as a precaution.

The judge’s ruling received support from South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and South Carolina Senate President Harvey Peeler.

“This is a victory for state’s rights and the rule of law," Wilson said. "State lawmakers had a chance to remove the witness signature requirement and they chose not to.”

Peeler said he was pleased the Court of Appeals blocked the previous judge’s order.

“I appreciate the fact that the court agrees with the South Carolina General Assembly that we have protected the voter and the vote in the November election,” Peeler said.

South Carolina GOP Party Chair Drew McKissick also released a statement on Thursday’s ruling:

“Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the federal district court’s ruling preventing S.C. from enforcing the witness requirement for absentee ballots. We’ve fought hard for the witness requirement because it protects the integrity of our elections and so has the General Assembly. 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.”

South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson Jr. also released a statement late Thursday afternoon:

“We are reading the opinion as well as the dissent and evaluating our options. Out goal has been to afford people during a pandemic the opportunity cast a vote without risking his/her life. We believe that the witness signature requirement for South Carolina absentee ballots is a wholly unnecessary burden on people trying to vote safely. The Republicans are fighting common sense reforms to our voting system because they want to make it as hard as possible for South Carolinians to vote. We are looking at the decision and deciding whether or not we will be appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. We are disappointed, but will not give up hope. We encourage people to follow the rules and get the witness signature while this is being litigated.”

The League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area released a state as well:

“The League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area has genuinely appreciated actions taken by the General Assembly during the primary and now in anticipation of the General Election regarding No Excuse Absentee Voting, along with other measures.  We regret that waiver of the witness signature on the ballot envelope requirement was not also adopted.  Securing witness signatures forces many seniors and others vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 to interact with others and through that exposure threaten their health and safety.  Further, the Election Commission specifically asked the legislature to remove the witness signature requirement for this election, since it is unverifiable and unnecessarily results in ballots being uncounted.  We believe the failure to waive the envelope signature requirement was a missed opportunity for the S.C. General Assembly to proactively further protect South Carolina voters and promote fuller and safer voter access.”

State elections officials began mailing out the ballots to voters this week, and the State Election Commission is now recommending voters get their ballots signed by a witness.

Berkeley County Registration and Election Director Adam Hammons said, “The biggest concern is voter confusion, we are at the mercy of the court and their decisions and we will follow SC Law. Hopefully, this will be the only change so voters can know exactly what the rules are.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill expanding absentee voting to nearly every registered South Carolina voter.

More than one million ballots could be cast by mail in South Carolina for the general election, based on estimates from the June primaries.

Copyright 2020 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.