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High court reinstates S. Carolina ballot witness requirement

Voters wait in line outside the Richland County election office on the first day of in-person absentee voting in South Carolina on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. A number of counties have polling places where people can vote almost like they would in person on Election Day, instead of having to mail in their absentee ballot. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
Voters wait in line outside the Richland County election office on the first day of in-person absentee voting in South Carolina on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. A number of counties have polling places where people can vote almost like they would in person on Election Day, instead of having to mail in their absentee ballot. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a requirement that South Carolina residents voting by mail in November’s election get a witness to sign their ballots.

Democrats had sought to have the requirement put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Republicans had defended it as deterring fraud.

While the high court reinstated the requirement as a lawsuit over it proceeds, voters have already started returning ballots. More than 200,000 absentee ballots have been mailed and 18,000 returned, according to the state’s election commission.

The court said that any ballots cast before the court's action Monday evening “and received within two days of this order may not be rejected for failing to comply with the witness requirement."

State Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick cheered the decision. “Despite the Democrats’ efforts to hijack a pandemic and use it to meddle with our election laws, they’ve lost,” he said in a statement. “We’re pleased the Supreme Court reinstated the witness signature requirement and recognized its importance in helping to prevent election fraud.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson expressed disappointment with the decision. “Our hope is that no one gets COVID-19 trying to find a witness. We are disappointed but elections have consequences," he said in a statement.

South Carolina has had a witness requirement for absentee voters since 1953. Under the current law, voters returning mail-in ballots swear an oath printed on the return envelope that confirms they are eligible to vote and that the ballot inside is theirs, among other things. The oath has to be witnessed by one other person who has to sign below the voter’s signature and write their address.

Pointing to the coronavirus pandemic, state and national Democratic Party organizations and several individual voters challenged the requirement and other parts of state election law. And a judge blocked the witness requirement before the state’s primary in June.