South Carolina voters will need to get a witness signature for absentee ballots after a federal appeals court on Thursday put a halt on a lower court ruling that lifted the requirement.
When the General Assembly temporarily allowed all South Carolina voters to cast absentee ballots for any reason this year because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Republican legislative leaders left the witness signature requirement in tact, arguing it would guard against voter fraud.
But the Democratic political groups that filed the challenge said the witness signature requirement risked spread the deadly virus because it could force infected voters to interact with healthy people.
U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs ruled in their favor late last week, determining that the requirement jeopardized South Carolinians' fundamental right to vote and has little impact on preventing voter fraud.
But Republican lawmakers and the state election agency swiftly appealed that ruling to the U.S. Fourth Circuit. The appeals court's decision to "stay" the lower court ruling means that the witness signatures are now required again.
State Republican leaders saw the appeals court ruling as a victory for state's rights.
"The Federal court’s attempt to ignore the collective will of the General Assembly was rightly set aside," S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas said in a statement. "We have ensured that every South Carolinian that cares to vote by absentee ballot may, while also continuing to secure the integrity of elections in this state."
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson noted that state lawmakers had a chance to remove the witness signature requirement by legislation this month, and the Republican majority voted against doing so.
"This is a victory for state’s rights," Wilson said.
S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said no decision has been made on an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We believe that the witness signature requirement for South Carolina absentee ballots is a wholly unnecessary burden on people trying to vote safely," he said. "The Republicans are fighting common sense reforms to our voting system because they want to make it as hard as possible for South Carolinians to vote."
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, called the verdict "a disappointing decision that makes voting even more difficult."
"Requiring a witness signature during the pandemic is just one more hurdle for voters to have to navigate," Hutto said.
The decision to restore South Carolina's witness signature requirement was a 2 to 1 verdict by a three-judge panel from the Fourth Circuit.
Judges Harvie Wilkinson and Steven Agee granted the stay. Judge Robert King dissented. Wilkinson and Agee were nominated by Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush respectively. King was nominated by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.