(Charleston, S.C.) – South Carolina election officials must count absentee ballots that election officials had been planning on rejecting due to an alleged mismatched signature, ensuring voters will not be disenfranchised for this reason in the upcoming November election, a South Carolina district court ruled today.
United States District Court Judge Richard Mark Gergel issued an order finding a portion of South Carolina’s absentee ballot statutes to be unconstitutional. His order prohibits election officials from rejecting absentee ballots due to an alleged signature mismatch. This order will prevent legitimate absentee ballots from being thrown out in the November election due to a perceived signature mismatch based on the judgment of election officials who have no background or training in signature matching.
“We are pleased with today’s decision on signature matching and the sensible relief ordered by the court,” said John Powers, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It is common sense that South Carolina counties should not be employing signature matching procedures for absentee ballots that are contrary to South Carolina law and violate the U.S. Constitution. Election officials are not experts at reviewing signatures.”
Civil rights groups filed a motion for preliminary injunction earlier this month against Marci Andino, executive director of the South Carolina Election Commission, and other state election officials. The lawsuit alleges that South Carolina’s lack of an effective notice and cure process for absentee ballots violates due process and violates the fundamental vote and will lead to the rejection of a record number of legitimate absentee ballots in the upcoming November election.
The executive director for the South Carolina Election Commission, Marci Andino filed a sworn declaration with the court last week saying that “I am not aware of and have no personal knowledge of any County Board that … plan to conduct ‘signature-matching procedures’” for the November 2020 election. The State’s attorneys similarly represented to the court at the preliminary injunction hearing last week that they were unaware of any county conducting signature-matching in South Carolina for this election. However, executive director Andino just recently filed a supplemental declaration indicating that information was inaccurate. At least ten South Carolina counties had been doing signature matching this election cycle. Spartanburg county started but “could not keep up and stopped checking.” Some counties are offering cure opportunities, some are not, and other counties did not provide any description of their signature matching procedures. Around midnight last night, Director Andino filed yet another declaration stating that she had sent a directive to county officials telling them to stop rejecting ballots due to an alleged signature mismatch.
“Today’s decision takes the important, practical step of ensuring that South Carolina voters are not subjected to unconstitutional signature matching by elections officials,” said Julianne Marley, an associate with Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. “The relief ordered by the court should ensure that voters in all South Carolina counties are protected from arbitrary disenfranchisement on these grounds.”
The litigation, League of Women Voters of South Carolina v. Andino, was filed earlier this month by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP on behalf of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, The Family Unit, and two registered voters who intend to vote-by-mail in the upcoming election.
Plaintiffs said the following:
“The court has ensured that all voters will have a voice in our democracy,” said Brenda Williams, executive director of The Family Unit, Inc. “Just because there will be a record number of absentee voters, that does not mean we need to have a record number of disenfranchised voters.”
“As a result of today’s ruling, voters in this critical election now do not have to worry that their vote may be disqualified by a claimed mismatch of signatures,” said Christe McCoy-Lawrence, co-president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. “This decision is a significant win for voter confidence in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our elections with rule changes, delays, and massive surges in mail voting. This ruling erases the uncertainty voters might feel about whether their absentee ballot signature may not exactly match a previous one on record.”
Read the court’s decision here.
About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes. For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org.