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Follow the latest news and information about voting and the 2020 election, including essential information about how to vote during a pandemic and more.

SC Disqualified Less Than 1% Of Absentee Ballots This Year Despite Witness Signature Rulings

Tiffany Tertipes
The biggest reason for ballots not being counted in South Carolina was a missing witness signature on the ballot envelope.

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

In the 2020 election, South Carolina didn’t allow election officials to contact residents who sent in absentee ballots with missing information, like a witness signature. Now, election data shows less than 1% of mailed absentee ballots in the state were rejected for not having a witness signature, lower than in the 2016 presidential election.

The data, from the South Carolina Election Commission, showed 0.9% of the state’s returned absentee ballots were not counted because they were deficient or returned late. The biggest reason for ballots not being counted was a missing witness signature on the ballot envelope, which led to 0.7% of all mailed absentee ballots to be disqualified.

That rate is comparable to the 2016 election. That year, about 1.2% of absentee ballots were rejected for not having a valid witness signature. This year was different, though, because 451,000 South Carolina residents voted absentee by mail, three times as many as in 2016, reflecting a nationwide trend of more voting by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Christe McCoy-Lawrence, co-president of the South Carolina chapter of the League of Women Voters, thought the rejection rate was still too high.

"We were disturbed that the number was primarily the missing witness signatures because there had been so much confusion and misinformation in some cases, about whether the witness signature was required," McCoy-Lawrence said.

Otherwise, McCoy-Lawrence believed the election went smoothly, despite litigation her group was a part of around the state’s absentee ballot rules. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Carolina legislature passed a bill to loosen its restrictions on who could vote absentee. South Carolina required voters to have one witness for their absentee ballot this year. A federal district court judge in Columbia waived that requirement for the state’s primary in June.

Multiple civic groups, including the South Carolina chapter of the League of Women Voters, then filed a suit against the state for the November election, asking to remove the witness signature again. What followed during September and October was a back-and-forth of court decisions, where the witness signature wasn’t required, then it was. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in early October that South Carolinians must have a witness signature if they vote by mail. By then, just over 200,000 ballots had already been sent to voters, and some voters received instructions saying a witness signature was not required in this year’s election. McCoy-Lawrence said as soon as the lawsuit was appealed, her organization started spreading one message on social media:

"Get it. It’s in doubt, go ahead and get it," McCoy-Lawrence said. "Go ahead and get a witness signature, because we don’t know for sure how this is gonna work out. So we did the best we could in terms of education."

McCoy-Lawrence said local election boards deserved credit for keeping the rejection rate down, saying those offices were a helpful resource for voters who were unsure if they needed a witness signature. But she also said the Election Commission could have done more public service announcements about the requirement, and instead relied too much on putting information on its “SC-Votes” website.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Election Commission told local election officials they did not have the authority to contact voters to “cure” their ballots if they were missing a witness signature. That meant voters who mailed back disqualified ballots would have no way to know that their vote didn’t count. McCoy-Lawrence said a robust public service announcement might have pushed the rejection rate even lower, especially one that reached residents without broadband Internet access.