Supreme Court Reinstates Witness Requirement for South Carolina’s Mail-In Ballots

October 5, 2020 Updated: October 6, 2020

The Supreme Court on Oct. 5 overturned a district court injunction that prohibited South Carolina from requiring mail-in ballots to have a witness signature.

The order doesn’t apply to ballots already cast by mail and those received within two days of the order, the brief ruling states. The Supreme Court order only rejected the preliminary injunction, and plaintiffs in the lower court can still prevail if the circuit court rules in their favor.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch would have fully overturned the injunction. However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the federal courts shouldn’t meddle in affairs, which are the responsibility of politically accountable state officials. He also noted that “for many years, this Court has repeatedly emphasized that federal courts ordinarily should not alter state election rules in the period close to an election.”

“By enjoining South Carolina’s witness requirement shortly before the election, the District Court defied that principle and this Court’s precedents,” Kavanaugh wrote.

South Carolina’s Republican leaders and the state election commission in late September appealed a district judge’s order to “immediately and publicly” inform voters about the removal of the signature requirement.

U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs issued the preliminary injunction upon determining that the signature requirement posed what was described as an unconstitutional burden on South Carolinians’ right to vote.

South Carolina is one of few states that requires a witness signature on absentee ballots. Lawyers for the state’s Republican Party and top legislative leaders argued against removing the requirement, but the judge said their position was “undercut by an utter dearth of absentee fraud.”

South Carolina is one of 23 states that legalized voting by mail for the 2020 election cycle, according to a tally maintained by The Washington Post. At least 84 percent of American voters can cast ballots by mail in the fall.

The Supreme Court ruling is a victory for Republicans who are fighting similar legal battles related to mail-in voting across the United States with the goal of preventing voter fraud. Democrats argue that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent and are fighting against various requirements they say make it hard to cast votes by mail. The Democrats’ effort involves at least 600 lawyers, and it dwarfs that of the Republicans.

More than 3.8 million people have already cast votes in the 2020 general election, according to the U.S. Elections Project. Data from states that report early voters’ party affiliation shows that more than twice as many Democrats have voted by mail compared to Republicans.

President Donald Trump won South Carolina by more than 14 points in 2016.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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