Supreme Court Reinstates South Carolina’s Ballot Witness Requirement

Voters wait in line outside the Richland County election office on the first day of in-person absentee voting in South Carolina on Monday. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court Monday night reinstated a Republican-backed witness signature requirement for absentee ballots in South Carolina, rejecting Democrats’ complaints of voter suppression during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The high court granted South Carolina Republicans’ application for stay in part. Due to the Nov. 3 election being less than one month away, the Supreme Court exempted absentee ballots that have already been mailed and received by Wednesday, Oct. 7.

South Carolina Democrats sued election officials last month in federal court and U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, a Barack Obama appointee, issued a preliminary injunction against the witness signature requirement on Sept. 18. In spite of the witness signature requirement being in place since 1953, Childs concluded it could increase the risk of voters contracting Covid-19 while forcing other already-infected voters to risk exposing a witness to the disease.

A three-judge panel in the Fourth Circuit later reinstated the witness signature requirement before the full appeals court reversed and reimposed the injunction against it.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Donald Trump appointee, said the trial judge’s ruling contradicted a constitutional principle that the health and safety of Americans is “principally entrusted” with “the politically accountable” elected officials of the states.

“Second, for many years, this court has repeatedly emphasized that federal courts ordinarily should not alter state election rules in the period close to an election,” Kavanaugh wrote. “By enjoining South Carolina’s witness requirement shortly before the election, the district court defied that principle and this court’s precedents.”

Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch stated they would have granted the application in full, with no exceptions made for the thousands of absentee ballots already mailed.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick cheered the ruling, stating Democrats lost in spite of “efforts to hijack a pandemic and use it to meddle” with election laws.

“We’re pleased the Supreme Court reinstated the witness signature requirement and recognized its importance in helping to prevent election fraud,” he said in a statement. “We were willing to go all the way to the highest court in the land, and it’s a great day for those who care about the security and integrity of our elections.”

The South Carolina Democratic Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The ruling comes as polling shows Senator Lindsey Graham running in a dead heat with Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison, with each garnering 48% of support from likely voters. Democrats nationwide have poured money into Harrison’s campaign and are gunning for Graham’s seat, who they deem as an apologist and enabler of President Donald Trump. Graham was initially expected to win comfortably, as South Carolina is a Republican-leaning state — he won his last election in 2014 by a 10-point margin.

Approximately a dozen other states have similar witness signature or notary requirements for mail-in ballots.

A federal judge in Tulsa declined last month to block requirements enacted by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature for photo identification or a notarized signature for absentee ballots.

“The concerns about voting during the pandemic, especially to the elderly and other voters who are at a higher risk for serious outcomes, are justified,” U.S. District Judge John Dowell wrote at the time. “However, the state has put in place alternatives that do not necessarily require that voters have direct contact with others in order to cast an absentee ballot, and the evidence and law substantiate that the state’s interests in preventing voter fraud and promoting certainty and confidence are sufficiently weighty to overcome any minor burden imposed upon Oklahoma voters during the pandemic.”

Oklahoma Senate Bill 210 was enacted in May after the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down an earlier requirement for notarized signatures on absentee ballots. The state’s high court reasoned that Oklahoma law allowed signed, sworn statements made under the penalty of perjury to suffice.

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