Court nixes SC witness requirement on absentee ballots

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TAMPA, FL – OCTOBER 22: Voting booths are setup at the Yuengling center on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters on October 22, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. Florida voters head to the polls to cast their early ballots in the race for the Senate as well as the Governors seats. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court has reversed course and reinstated a ruling by a South Carolina federal judge that would not require a witness signature for those wishing to vote absentee in that state.

A majority of judges on the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Friday vacated a ruling from a day earlier by a three-judge panel of the same court to overturn U.S. District Judge Michelle Child’s Sept. 18 ruling that struck down the requirement and decided to reconsider the case, news outlets reported.

The latest decision means the final outcome remains to be determined. But for now, witness signatures are no longer required. The ruling ultimately could affect up to an estimated 1 million voters in South Carolina who the state election commission has said may vote absentee. South Carolina has approximately 3 million eligible voters.

The only two judges who published a dissent in Friday’s ruling were the two judges who had decided to reinstate the witness signature requirement a day earlier: Judges Harvie Wilkinson and Steven Agee, both of whom were nominated by Republican presidents.

In a five-page dissent, Wilkinson and Agee wrote that the full court’s decision could cause “confusion and disruption.” But a majority of their colleagues disagreed, eliminating the requirement once again until the case can be reconsidered.

A date for the new hearing was not immediately scheduled.

Republicans have sought to maintain the witness signature requirement, arguing it guards against voter fraud. Democrats contend that the requirement has little impact on voter fraud and would force voters who are infected with COVID-19 to interact with healthy people in order to obtain the signature.

“It’s an interesting and a positive step,” South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson told The State. “We believe that the witness signature line is not only a hindrance to people being able to cast their ballots but it’s also, you know, a throwback to a bygone era in the South.”

“We don’t comment on ongoing legal matters,” Claire Robinson, spokeswoman for the SC GOP, told the newspaper.

Although a majority of the 4th Circuit said they were granting a “rehearing en banc,” it is not yet known whether that rehearing will involve oral arguments, or whether the judges will simply consider all or portions of the written record, which contains hundreds, if not thousands, of pages.

In-person early voting for those who qualify begins Oct. 5, and county officials have already begun mailing ballots to voters as of this week.

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