Changing Absentee Rules Leave South Carolina Voters Confused
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A flurry of federal court rulings this month over whether South Carolinians need witnesses to sign their mail-in ballots this November has left many confused and frustrated as voting registration deadlines approach, with absentee voting beginning in less than a week.
The rulings stem from one of several lawsuits filed over the state's election rules during the coronavirus pandemic. A federal district judge struck down the witness signature requirement on Sept. 18, only for a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the rule less than a week later. On Friday, the full appeals court decided to revert to the district judge's order — temporarily, until the entire court makes a final ruling.
AARP South Carolina Director Teresa Arnold said the two different messages on the witness signature requirement are contributing to high levels of anxiety among older voters, compounded by the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking to me that people are very concerned about the safety of their vote,” Arnold said.
As of Tuesday, 333,000 people had registered to vote by mail, according to South Carolina State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire — more than doubling the previous record number of nearly 140,000 ballots mailed in the 2016 general election.
President Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the conservative state by about 14 percentage points in 2016, but Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham faces an increasingly competitive race there against Jaime Harrison.
In a Tuesday court filing urging a speedy decision to minimize voter confusion, Election Commission attorney Grayson Lambert wrote that the 4th Circuit order will “almost certainly” be appealed to the Supreme Court. More than 93,000 ballots have been mailed out to voters already, Lambert wrote.
The commission estimates more than 1 million absentee ballots could be cast in South Carolina for the general election. South Carolina has approximately 3 million eligible voters.
Across the country, lawsuits by civil rights and Democratic groups challenging absentee voting rules could reshape how people vote amid the pandemic. South Carolina is one of several states with the witness signature requirement; some have changed their laws recently because of the health threats posed by the coronavirus.
In South Carolina, the rule changes are happening so rapidly that some lawmakers can’t keep up.
On Monday, state Rep. Stewart Jones, R-Laurens, tried to correct a Facebook post by the Election Commission on whether witness signatures were required, only to be told his own information was already out of date.
“Even in the General Assembly, even in the Election Commission, there’s a lot of confusion,” Jones told The Associated Press. “I think we just need to simplify it and stick by our laws.”
Republicans have maintained removing the witness requirement would pose a risk to election integrity because the signatures safeguard against voter fraud. Democrats have said keeping the requirement in a pandemic amounts to voter suppression.
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 amid the pandemic. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster earlier this month, but the amendments to drop the witness signature and add ballot drop boxes failed.
Bob Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said the changing rules, coupled with the doubts President Donald Trump has sown about mail-in voting, could lead some people not to vote at all.
U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs cited the health risks of in-person voting in her initial ruling to remove the witness requirement. She also struck down the requirement for the June primary election, which was not appealed.
Columbia resident Viola Moye, 83, said she didn't need a witness when she voted absentee in June. Moye lives alone and said she has been staying home because she has diabetes. She has relatives who can witness her signature, but none are keen to enter her house in the middle of the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s right,” Moye said of the witness signature requirement.
With a little over a month before the election and without a permanent decision from higher courts, several organizations — including the Election Commission and the state Democratic Party — are recommending voters still have witnesses sign their ballot envelopes.
In a state where many rural and elderly residents lack easy access to the internet, outreach groups are opting for mailers and phone calls to keep voters aware of the rapid changes, aiming to ensure ballots aren't disqualified.
“We feel like we’re watching a ping pong game,” Arnold said. “It will be good when it’s put to rest and clarified.”
AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020.
Michelle 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.