COLUMBIA - South Carolina election officials have no authority to create a process for voters to fix mail-in ballots missing a witness signature, a requirement reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court this week, lawyers for the board told members.
As a result, South Carolinians who mail in their ballots without witness signatures may not have their votes counted for the general election unless those ballots were received by Wednesday.
The State Election Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to inform the county elections officials, who send out and collect the ballots, of the legal advice.
The Supreme Court on Monday put the witness signature requirement back in place for the Nov. 3 election, overturning an appeals court ruling saying the signature wasn't necessary because of the dangers in the coronavirus pandemic.
The high court said ballots without witness signatures received by Wednesday could still be counted. Any ballots without witness signatures arriving after then will not be opened or counted, commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.
In South Carolina, anyone who can sign their name and write their address on a voter's ballot envelope can serve as a witness.
Although Republicans in the state have framed the witness signature as a crucial voter fraud prevention measure, experts say election fraud is exceedingly rare. Federal Judge J. Michelle Childs noted there was little to no evidence of voter fraud during the June primaries, for which she also struck down the witness signature requirement.
Elections officials had issued more than 300,000 ballots by mail as of Thursday. Approximately 36,000 have been returned.
Outreach groups are still tackling a number of voter access issues in the courts.
The significant number of likely first-time absentee voters this election has brought a number of due process issues to the forefront, said Christe McCoy-Lawrence, co-president of the state's League of Women Voters.
A federal lawsuit filed last week by the league wants the state election commission to notify voters if their ballots are missing signatures or their signatures do not match those on record. The league hopes the state will create a uniform process allowing voters to fix signature problems once notified.
Eighteen states already have those procedures in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"There's no notice or opportunity to be heard when something as precious as your vote can be taken away from you," said ACLU of South Carolina Legal Director Susan Dunn, who is representing the league in the suit.
McCoy-Lawrence acknowledged that in South Carolina, most county election officials have not had a system in place to match voter signatures in recent elections.
Another lawsuit filed in federal court by the South Carolina Progressive Network Education Fund seeks to extend the voter registration deadline, which ended earlier this month, because of the challenges posed by the pandemic. State law requires that people register at least 30 days before an election.
The state previously extended the voter registration deadline by 10 days in 2018 after massive flooding from Hurricane Florence.
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