Judge: SC Cannot Reject Ballots Due To Mismatched Signatures
UPDATED Oct. 28, 7:06 p.m.
A federal judge in South Carolina has ruled that county election boards in the state cannot reject any absentee-by-mail ballots because the voter’s signature doesn’t match the one they have on file. The ruling comes after South Carolina’s elections director discovered some counties were using signature matching procedures that were illegal under state law.
The temporary injunction comes after a recent survey by the South Carolina State Election Commission discovered a handful of county election boards were conducting signature matching on ballots, though the state has no laws, rules or regulations on the practice.
One of the counties found to have signature matching procedures was Greenville County, the most populous in the state. County elections director Conway Belangia said his office rarely rejected ballots during this process, and that out of the approximately 50,000 absentee ballots mailed back to his office:
"We’d only turned down one envelope for a bad signature," Belangia said. "And it is obviously not the signature of the voter. In fact, the name’s totally different. So that’s the only one that we have rejected."
Gergel wrote Tuesday that counties that wish to continue matching signatures on absentee ballots must seek approval of the court first.
Voter outreach groups filed the lawsuit earlier this month, as the significant number of first-time absentee voters this election has brought due process issues to the forefront, said Christe McCoy-Lawrence, co-president of the League of Women Voters' South Carolina chapter. The suit sought a permanent procedure for elections officials to notify voters and allow them to fix ballots with signature issues.
"This decision is a significant win for voter confidence in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our elections with rule changes, delays and massive surges in mail voting," McCoy-Lawrence said in a statement. "This ruling erases the uncertainty voters might feel about whether their absentee ballot signature may not exactly match a previous one on record.”
McCoy-Lawrence said the signature matching procedures were one of a number of obstacles that could disenfranchise voters.
"One of our plaintiffs, for example, is a man who had a stroke," McCoy-Lawrence told WFAE. "And he knows that his signature has changed radically. And that therefore it could well be questioned. And he wanted to be sure that he’d have an opportunity to explain."
State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the commission was appealing the part of the order that allows the court to approve signature verification procedures for absentee ballots.
Whitmire said these counties likely developed these procedures many years ago. He said the commission’s directive issued this week made sure every county in the state handled absentee ballots the same way.
"It’s a matter of saying, ‘If you’re doing any sort of signature matching, you can’t do that anymore. And any ballots, if you’ve challenged any ballots for that reason, that challenge needs to be removed and they need to be processed as a normal ballot,'" Whitmire said.
Whitmire said he expected the impact of this illegal signature matching to be very small compared to the number of absentee-by-mail ballots these counties had received.
As of Wednesday, the counties in question had gotten back about 88,000 of these ballots. But Whitmire said the Election Commission didn't know how many voters had their ballots rejected because their signatures didn’t match. He said county election boards would need to notify voters who fell in this category because their vote was being challenged.
Lawyers for the state said during oral arguments last week that county boards would be acting unlawfully if they disqualified absentee ballots on the basis of mismatched voter signatures.
Commission Executive Director Marci Andino said she was unaware of any counties with signature matching procedures in place, but a subsequent court-ordered survey she conducted of all 46 county election boards found at least nine of the boards were engaged in unauthorized signature matching.
Although the majority of counties said they were not verifying signatures for ballots in this year's general election, the few that did had what Gergel described as a “hodgepodge” of procedures. Some counties notified voters whose ballot signatures did not match those on their registration forms, while other counties disqualified the ballots.
“The late discovery of these wildly inconsistent procedures, where a minority of counties are conducting some version of signature matching without the knowledge or approval of the State Election Commission and acting contrary to the Commission’s and its Executive Director’s plainly stated legal position that such procedures are unlawful under South Carolina law, raises a number of significant legal questions,” Gergel wrote.
After compiling the survey results, Andino ordered counties Monday to stop signature matching and include ballots with signature issues to be counted with the other ballots.
At least one county, Spartanburg, said it had stopped verifying signatures because it could not keep up with the volume of mail-in ballots received.
As of noon Tuesday, 354,000 South Carolinians had voted absentee by mail, more than doubling the record number of mail-in ballots returned in the 2016 general election, according to the election commission. Another 584,000 people have already voted in person.
That uptick follows rule changes put in place by the state legislature this fall allowing all voters to vote absentee regardless of reason because of the coronavirus pandemic. Voters in the state usually have to provide a specific reason for voting absentee, such as being 65 or older or having a physical disability.
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.