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SC absentee voters won't need a witness due to coronavirus, court rules

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South Carolinians will be able to vote in the June primaries by casting an absentee ballot, which a court ruled Monday will no longer require the signature of a witness. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

A federal court ruled Monday that South Carolina must allow all voters to use absentee ballots without the signature of a witness to keep coronavirus from spreading at the polls in the June primary election.

"Were it not for the current pandemic, then this element may have cut the other way," U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs wrote in the finding. "Strikingly, the witness requirement would still apply to voters who have already contracted COVID-19, therefore affirmatively mandating that an infected individual ... risk exposing the witness."

The state had required a witness signature for absentee voters, which several plaintiffs argued in two separate lawsuits would pose an unnecessary risk and could disenfranchise swaths of voters adhering to social distancing measures.

"The court's decision protects the safety and well-being of those voters who are most at risk from COVID-19," said Deuel Ross, an attorney with the NAACP. "The temporary suspension of the witness signature requirement for absentee ballots removes a needless barrier that required people to violate social distancing protocols to vote."

The General Assembly had unanimously approved a short-term bill that would allow all voters to request absentee ballots for the June 9 primaries, though state law requires absentee voters to cite a reason that they are physically unable to make it to the polls on election day.

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Under the modified rules, 3.3 million registered voters could vote absentee for any reason because of the state of emergency, but they would still need a witness to vouch for their ballot.

So in late April the plaintiffs, along with the ACLU, NAACP, Democratic National Committee and South Carolina Democratic Party, sued Gov. Henry McMaster and members of the State Election Commission. The plaintiffs represent a variety of high-risk groups, and said they'd have to choose between their health and right to vote.

The federal court agreed their health concerns were sufficient to warrant additional caution, and noted that election officials hadn't offered any proof of voter fraud in non-witnessed absentee ballots.

"The elimination of the witness requirement protects not only those who are most vulnerable to the pandemic, it also ensures that no one will have to risk exposure to COVID-19 in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote in the primary elections,” ACLU of South Carolina legal director Susan Dunn said.

McMaster's office did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment about the court's decision. 

Reach Sara Coello at 843-937-5705 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

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