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Supreme Court sides with Republicans and restores witness requirement for South Carolina absentee ballots

The Supreme Court, siding with Republicans, on Monday restored a South Carolina requirement that absentee ballots be signed by a witness. A lower court in South Carolina had ruled that the state legislature was wrong to retain the witness signature requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic. A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the requirement, and then the full appeals court put it on hold again.

While the case proceeds, the Supreme Court has granted a temporary stay of the District Court's ruling.

Democrats had sought to have the witness requirement suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Republicans said it deterred fraud.

After the state's primary and in response to the pandemic, the legislature made changes to the state's election law, including allowing all residents to vote absentee in November. But it left the witness requirement in place.

South Carolina has had a witness requirement for absentee voters since 1953. Under current law, voters returning mail-in ballots sign an oath printed on the return envelope that confirms they are eligible to vote and that the ballot inside is theirs. The oath must be witnessed by one other person.

For now, South Carolina absentee voters will be required to obtain a witness' signature on their ballots, except for those cast and received within two days of the Supreme Court's order. These absentee votes  "may not be rejected for failing to comply with the witness requirement," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the order. 

Voters in South Carolina 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.

Kavanaugh wrote that a state legislature's decision to change or keep election rules addressing the coronavirus shouldn't be "subject to second-guessing by a federal court, which "lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people."

He also stated that federal courts "ordinarily should not alter state election rules in the period close to an election."

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