COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge in South Carolina has struck down a rule requiring mail-in absentee ballots to be signed by witnesses for the upcoming November election, citing the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a ruling Friday, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs ordered the state Election Commission to immediately inform voters about the removal of the requirement. Childs said South Carolina voters would risk exposing themselves to COVID-19 if they voted in person, and that they could also expose the witnesses required to sign their ballots.
“The evidence in the record points to the conclusion that adherence to the Witness Requirement in November would only increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 for members of the public with underlying medical conditions, the disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities,” Childs wrote.
President Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the conservative state by about 14 percentage points in 2016, but Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham faces an increasingly competitive race there against Jaime Harrison.
The ruling follows a lawsuit filed by state and national Democratic Party organizations, along with several individual voters, against the state Election Commission. There is at least one other lawsuit over South Carolina's voting rules in federal court, and another in state court.
The South Carolina Republican Party and state legislative leaders also argued against changes proposed by plaintiffs, highlighting the risks of potential voter fraud by removing the witness requirement.
But Childs wrote that the argument was "undercut by an utter dearth of absentee fraud," noting there was little to no evidence of voter fraud during the June primaries.
Childs, who had also struck down the witness signature provision for the June primary election, observed that the seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 infections in the state, at 763 cases on Sept. 17, remains significantly higher than the daily infection rate leading up to her prior injunction in May.
State health officials confirmed 134,884 virus cases as of Monday. 3,040 people have died.
Childs observed the witness requirement would have still applied to people who had already contracted COVID-19, requiring those voters risk exposing their witnesses to the virus.
Earlier last week, the South Carolina legislature passed a bill allowing all voters to vote absentee for any reason in a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but an amendment to remove the signature provision failed. Voters in the state usually have to provide a specific reason for voting absentee, such as being 65 or older or having a physical disability.
In a July letter to legislative leaders, Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino had recommended to expand absentee voting access and take other steps to reduce crowding and wait times at polling places.
Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.