On April 22, 2020 The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Carolina, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a federal lawsuit over South Carolina’s failure to take action to ensure all eligible voters can vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the June 9 statewide primary elections. The case was brought on behalf of Family Unit Inc. and several individuals. The lawsuit, Thomas v. Andino, was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C.
The groups challenged a state requirement that forces people who vote absentee to have a third-party witness signature on their ballot envelope, as well as an “excuse” requirement that fails to provide an accommodation to allow all eligible voters to vote absentee during the pandemic. Even if voters are allowed to vote absentee “because of injury or illness” that keeps them at home, election officials have rejected the view that this currently “include[s] self-isolating due to a pandemic.” Requiring voters to be physically present at their traditional polling places during the COVID-19 outbreak — where they would be congregating and waiting in line with others in order to vote — is contrary to the advice of public health experts. In addition, in the midst of a pandemic, the witness requirement also puts people’s health at risk.
“Structural racism has resulted in the COVID-19 crisis having a devastating and disproportionate impact on African-American people in South Carolina. Yet, state law restrictions on absentee voting will needlessly force many African-American and other voters to vote in-person in contradiction of the governor’s shelter in place order,” said Deuel Ross, Senior Counsel at LDF. “Similarly, the state’s requirement that a witness sign an absentee ballot will endanger vulnerable voters by forcing them to leave their homes and interact with others. Election officials must act to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by both broadly expanding absentee voting options and making in-person voting as safe and accessible as possible.”
The groups asked the court to block the state from enforcing the requirements while COVID-19 transmission is occurring; issue guidance instructing local election officials to count otherwise validly cast absentee ballots that are missing a witness signature for South Carolina’s primary and general elections in 2020; and conduct a public information campaign informing voters about the elimination of the witness and excuse requirements at this time.
On May 25 2020, a federal court blocked the South Carolina requirement that forced people who vote absentee to obtain a witness signature. The ruling, which applies to the June primary, makes it safer for South Carolinians to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Carolina, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund successfully challenged the requirement, which if allowed to stay in effect could have disenfranchised tens of thousands of eligible voters who could not risk contact with other individuals to vote in person or obtain a witness signature on their absentee ballot. The groups filed a federal lawsuit on April 22 2020 over South Carolina’s failure to take action to ensure all eligible voters can vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic — even for its fast-approaching June 9 statewide primary elections.
The following reactions are from:
Adriel Cepeda Derieux, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project: “The court recognized the gravity of forcing voters to needlessly risk their health to obtain a witness signature. This ruling means voters in South Carolina can safely cast a ballot in the June primary elections in this time of COVID-19. It is a huge victory.”
Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina: “This ruling is a critical victory for our democracy and all voters in South Carolina. The elimination of the witness requirement protects not only those who are most vulnerable to the pandemic, it also ensures that no one will have to risk exposure to COVID-19 in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote in the primary elections.”
Deuel Ross, senior counsel at LDF: “Today’s decision represents an enormous victory for our clients and all South Carolinians. The temporary suspension of the witness signature requirement for absentee ballots removes a needless barrier that required people to violate social distancing protocols to vote. Now, everyone can vote in the June elections without the fear of endangering their health. This win is especially important for black voters, who are more likely to be infected by COVID-19 and more likely to die from it than other South Carolinians. The court’s decision protects the safety and well-being of those voters who are most at risk from COVID-19.”
The lawsuit, Thomas v. Andino, was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C.