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2,500 SC ballots won't count due to lack of a signature

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Absentee ballot

Multiple sets of instructions inside absentee ballots mailed to Richland County voters specified the envelope must include a witness signature. The green slip comes from the county, while the other is generated by the state Election Commission for all absentee ballots statewide. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — At least 2,500 absentee ballots in South Carolina won't be counted because voters returned them without a witness signature, a requirement upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the state Election Commission.

But that represents a much smaller percentage than those rejected four years ago for the same reason, when there was no court fight to potentially confuse voters.

An Oct. 5 ruling by the nation's high court reinstated the requirement that's been in state law since 1953, overturning an earlier decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. But justices gave some leeway due to the back-and-forth rulings, specifying that ballots received before Oct. 8 without a witness signature on the return envelope would still count.  

If there's a silver lining to the court case, it's the "bright light" shone on the signature requirement, said Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. 

"There's been more attention to the witness signature than ever before," he said. "Not to discount that people might've been confused. But on the other hand, the attention received has to have some positive effect on educating voters." 

State law requires voters to sign the "voter's oath" on their envelope and get someone to sign witnessing that signature before returning the absentee ballot. The law allows anyone to be a witness.

As of Monday morning, counties reported that 2,509 ballots received since Oct. 8 have been set aside for lacking a witness signature on the ballot's outer, return envelope. That's 0.5 percent of the 422,000 mailed absentee ballots returned so far. 

In all, 462,000 requested absentee ballots have been mailed out statewide, more than three times those mailed for the 2016 general election. They must be received by mail or hand-delivered to county election officials by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Nearly 1.3 million South Carolinians have already voted, as of noon Monday. That compares to 503,000 people who voted absentee statewide in 2016.  

In 2016, just under 1,600 mailed absentee ballots were returned without a witness signature, out of 133,000 total, meaning 1.2 percent of all returned absentee ballots weren't counted for that reason.

Democrat Jaime Harrison, who is in a tight race trying to oust U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, tweeted Saturday that "ballots are being tossed out in South Carolina," causing "voter disenfranchisement."

"Thousands of ballots have been thrown out because of confusion around whether a witness signature was required. Democrats and Republicans should be united on this," he tweeted, asking voters to "please please please" vote in-person absentee or hand-deliver their mailed absentee ballot.

Ballots without signatures are not thrown out. But they are put, unopened, into a separate box for ballots that don't count. There is no provision in state law allowing a signature to be added after a ballot's been returned, Whitmire said. 

Of the numbers provided by counties so far, Beaufort County has the largest number of ballots that won't be counted for lacking a witness signature, at 362; followed by Richland County, at 269; Greenville County, at 262; and Dorchester County, at 258.

An additional 318 ballots statewide from voters who didn't sign their own name won't count. A federal judge has ruled that ballots can't be rejected due to mismatched signatures, but a "voter's oath" signature is still required.

In September, legislators voted almost unanimously to let all registered voters cast absentee ballots for the upcoming election without needing to pick one of the 17 normal excuses needed for not voting on Election Day, such as having to work, being out of town or being 65 or older.

But Republicans defeated efforts during the legislative debate to also eliminate the need for witness signatures.

Democrats sued, arguing that voters may have no one available to sign if they're quarantining alone — or if they live alone and don't want to venture out and risk their lives.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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