Orangeburg Co. Elections Office, others forced to change policies after federal ruling

Orangeburg Co. Elections Office, others forced to change policies after federal ruling

ORANGEBURG COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - A federal ruling in Charleston is having immediate impacts on Midlands voting.

Tuesday, a federal judge ruled county elections offices could no longer have “signature-matching” policies that could disqualify some absentee ballot votes.

The ruling state’s future policies will have to be approved by the federal court, and any previously-disqualified ballots will need to be reviewed without that process.

RELATED STORY Ι Federal judge rules SC ballots cannot be rejected for mismatched signatures

Only 10 counties reported implementing such policies during the court case, including Orangeburg County.

The other counties included:

  • Allendale
  • Anderson
  • Clarendon
  • Georgetown
  • Greenville
  • Greenwood
  • Laurens
  • Marlboro
  • Spartanburg

Court records show county policies differed or were not reported.

On a broad level, the practice involved comparing the voter signature on an absentee ballot to the signature in county records. If the signature didn’t match, the ballot was at risk of being disqualified.

State law does not require any signature matching for absentee voters.

Orangeburg County Director of Voter Registration Aurora Smalls estimated her office will now count five ballots that had been previously disqualified.

Her office did not report its policies to the South Carolina State Election Commission during the court case, but she described them to WIS:

“When we have someone bringing in a large group of ballots, we kind of just spot check to make sure that the voter has signed the ballot, so once we do that, we’ll check it against their application or any requests, the most recent application they’ve sent in,” she said.

Smalls said the policy was taught to her when she began at the office.

She said the five ballots were being kept in a separate lockbox but will now be joined with the other ballots.

Moving forward, she said the order will save her team time in an election where voter participation is spiking.

“If I’m bringing in 50 ballots, I can crop them in a little bit quicker. Than having to got and research and look at the application of each one,” she said.

The League of Women Voters South Carolina brought the suit with other plaintiffs against Marci Andino, the Executive Director of the State Elections Commission.

League Co-President Christe McCoy-Lawrence said the ruling was a win.

“This is very much an issue of concern, because they’ve had a stroke, or they become ill, or some people have completely forgotten how they signed their name when they registered,” she said.

State Election Commission spokesperson Chris Whitmire told WIS via email that it’s unclear how many ballots statewide the ruling will impact.

He sent a statement reading:

"[Tuesday] the U.S. District Court issued an order barring county election officials from using any signature matching procedures to disqualify any absentee ballots unless those procedures are approved by the Court.

There is no requirement in South Carolina law for election officials to verify signatures. Prior to the Court’s order, some counties have taken steps to verify a voter’s signature on an absentee ballot against signatures on file at the voter registration office.

According to the order, any county board seeking to use any signature matching procedure would have to include a method of notifying voter of any discrepancy and providing the voter with an opportunity to contest the determination. Any such procedure would have to be submitted to the Court for prior approval."

He also stated in the email:

“Following the 10/27 ruling, we filed a notice of appeal. We will be asking the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the part of the injunction allowing for court-approved signature verification procedures. We will not be asking the Fourth Circuit to stay the part of the injunction prohibiting county election boards from employing signature matching procedures. In other words, if successful, there would be no signature matching in the 2020 General Election, even court-approved ones.”

In addition, he attached a directive issued by the SEC prior to the ruling, telling all counties to cease signature matching policies.

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