COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Carolina and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have filed a federal lawsuit against members of the South Carolina Election Commission (SEC) and Governor Henry McMaster for not ensuring all voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, especially with the June 9 primaries fast approaching.
Those behind the lawsuit say their message is that South Carolina voters should not have to choose between life and their right to vote. The lawsuit was filed April 22 in U.S. District Court in Columbia.
The ACLU is arguing that South Carolina can both keep the public safe while also protecting democracy, but the ACLU says the state is refusing to do so. They also say requiring voters to physically report to polling locations and wait in line to vote goes against the advice of public health experts and social distancing guidelines.
Earlier this month, the state of Wisconsin moved forward with in-person voting for its recent primary elections. CNN is now reporting that at least 19 of those voters have since tested positive for COVID-19.
With this recent lawsuit, the ACLU says there’s still time to come up with a new plan to keep South Carolina voters safe.
Susan Dunn is the legal director with ACLU South Carolina.
She says this lawsuit has been filed, “against the Election Commission and the governor because they’re in the position to fix these things, but the Election Commission feels that they need the guidance of the governor or the legislators in order to make the changes that are needed, and our position is, well, if you can’t get it from the governor, you can’t get it from the legislature, we’ll go and ask for it from a court. If people are discouraged from voting or have to make choices about choosing between voting and being able to protect their health. That’s not a good plan for democracy.”
The June 23rd primary in the state of New York has officially been canceled, the first state to cancel primary elections because of the pandemic.
Dunn says the ACLU is committed to protecting our democracy, and that democracy can’t work the way it’s supposed to if people are discouraged from voting because they’re worried they might get sick.
The lawsuit is specifically challenging the state’s requirements for a person to vote absentee.
The ACLU says the process might seem challenging and therefore discouraging – disproportionately affecting minorities – by requiring eligible voters to request and submit an absentee ballot. Then, that ballot must be signed and witnessed before being returned with a stamp.
A spokesperson with the SEC says the office cannot comment on pending litigation, but there have been measures put in place to ensure the safety of voters and poll managers.
The SEC is also urging those who qualify to vote absentee to do so as soon as possible, but the ACLU argues that everyone should qualify because of social distancing guidelines in place amid the pandemic.
“The South Carolina absentee process is a little peculiar. One of the big problems is that the South Carolina Election Commission has interpreted the excuses that are available by law as not including, ‘I am staying home because of a pandemic.’ Their interpretation is you only get an excuse to vote if you are actually sick, and that creates a real problem,” said Dunn.
A spokesperson has said the SEC has no authority to delay or change the process of the primaries.
The governor’s office says in order to change the rules for absentee voting, the General Assembly would need to change the law.
You can read ACLU’s lawsuit in its entirety by clicking here.