October 05, 2020 10:33 PM
“WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a South Carolina election law Monday night that requires voters who mail in their absentee ballots to have someone witness their vote by signing their name on the back of the mail-in ballot envelope.
The high court issued a unanimous ruling after-hours Monday night, overturning a decision made last month by U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs of Columbia. Childs had prohibited the S.C. Election Commission from enforcing a state law that required a witness signature.
The two-page decision ends a weeks-long, on-again, off-again court battle from Childs’ court in Columbia to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington over whether South Carolina absentee voters would need someone to witness their signature on their mail-in ballot envelopes.
Childs wrote in her decision that she was persuaded by scientific evidence that the highly contagious COVID-19 posed a particular danger to elderly and medically vulnerable voters who, in many cases, would have to expose themselves to potential infection by seeking out a witness to get their signature.
In a small carve-out, or exception, to its otherwise unanimous ruling, a five-justice majority of the eight-person court ruled that “any ballots cast before this stay issues and received within two days of this order may not be rejected for failing to comply with the witness requirement,” the ruling said.
Up to 1 million South Carolina voters are expected to cast absentee ballots. Voters can still vote absentee in person at designated polling places. Anyone, including a spouse, friend or a child, can be a witness and sign the voter mail-in envelope.
In a short explanation of the Supreme Court’s reasoning, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that Childs’ decision overreached. He wrote that she should not have engaged in “second guessing” South Carolina’s state Legislature because unelected judges traditionally lack “the background, competence and expertise to assess public health” and are not accountable to the people.
Secondly, Kavanaugh wrote, federal courts ordinarily should not alter state election rules so close to an election. “The District Court defied that principle,” he wrote.
Six Democrats and several Democratic organizations had sued the S.C. Election Commission in an effort to get the witness signature requirement waived for this election. The Election Commission, which is controlled by Republicans, mounted an aggressive defense and was joined by the S.C. Republican Party, Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington.
Childs, in issuing her 71-page ruling in mid-September, reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from the various parties. Her ruling, she said, only applied to the upcoming Nov. 3 election and was influenced by the rising dangers of the coronavirus, a contagious respiratory viral infection that has so far killed more than 209,000 Americans and 3,200 South Carolinians since March.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined with Kavanaugh, but did not agree with Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, who said specifically they objected to giving even two days of relief to voters whose absentee ballots fail to contain a witness signature.
The names of Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not on the opinion. But they were not recorded as dissenting either. “