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Editorial: SC voters shouldn't have to pass an attention test to have their ballots counted

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More than 3,000 S.C. registered voters had their absentee ballots rejected because they didn't include a witness signature on the return envelope. File/Cindi Ross Scoppe/Staff

The bad news from this year’s S.C. absentee voting extravaganza is that twice as many people as four years ago had their mail-in ballots rejected because they failed the state’s attention-span test.

The good news is that the total number of ballots rejected because they lacked a legally required witness signature was low enough — less than a quarter of a percent of all ballots statewide — that it couldn’t have skewed the outcome of any statewide or congressional races. And it probably didn’t change the outcome of any other elections.

The reassuring news is that the increase in rejected ballots was entirely the result of having more than three times as many mail-in ballots as four years ago — and not because of all the confusion the federal courts created after the Legislature insisted on maintaining a witness requirement that works more like a test of voters’ attention to detail than a security check, since election officials only check to make sure there’s a signature on the witness line, not to verify that it belongs to an actual human being.

In fact, all the extra attention generated by shifting court orders leading up to the Nov. 3 election apparently worked to improve voters’ attention span and therefore improve their test scores: Columbia’s State newspaper reports that the percentage of mail-in ballots that were rejected because the witness signature line on the envelope was blank plummeted by nearly half, from 1.2% in 2016 to 0.7% in 2020.

Still, that was 3,134 registered S.C. voters who contacted their election office to request an absentee ballot, filled it out, signed their own name on the envelope, mailed it in and still didn’t have their vote counted, because they didn’t comply with a requirement that we didn’t have to comply with in the June primaries and that the State Election Commission says we don’t need.

Some of those people put their ballots in the mail at a time when they were not legally required to include a witness signature, but the ballots didn’t arrive at their county election office until after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the requirement.

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We continue to believe the Legislature should eliminate the witness requirement, not because some voters were disenfranchised by the Supreme Court action but because the Legislature has not produced a good explanation for what it accomplishes. (Saying “it deters fraud” isn’t sufficient without an explanation of how it does that.)

But if lawmakers insist on keeping the requirement, they need to correct a flaw in the law that was discovered after some voters received ballots with instructions telling them they didn’t need a witness signature, sent in their ballots without a signature, learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had reinstated the witness signature and were told they couldn’t “cure” their ballot, or cast a new one.

We certainly hope, for many reasons, that we never have to live through anything like 2020 again. And we aren’t convinced that it’s realistic to require election officials to contact voters who don’t comply with the law and give them a chance to correct any errors that would prevent their ballots from being counted. But there should be a mechanism that allows voters to correct a mistake they realize they made.

In fact, several county officials told The State they have reached out to voters in the past to let them provide a witness signature, or their own signature if it was missing, but this year the State Election Commission voted to prohibit this practice.

It needs to be allowed, not by Election Commission edict but by state law so it can’t be suddenly changed days before an election.

Better still, let’s do away with the witness requirement — along with the restrictions that will return next year on which registered voters are allowed the special privilege of casting absentee ballots.

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