All South Carolina residents registered to vote in the June 9 primary are able to request an absentee ballot from the State Election Commission without specifying an excuse due to the ongoing state of emergency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

State lawmakers fast-tracked legislation this week to expand availability of absentee ballots on Tuesday.

The measure temporarily suspends the requirement to indicate one of a series of state-allowed excuses to request an absentee ballot. Still, the law requires a witness to sign the ballot in an effort to curb fraud.

In April, the South Carolina Democratic Party filed a lawsuit earlier in the month that would have made it possible for those fearing infection to vote from home via absentee ballot rather than have to brave dangerous conditions.

"We strongly encourage Charleston County citizens to take advantage of this new bill and vote absentee by mail," said Board of Elections Director Joe Debney in a press release. “We would also like to remind citizens about our online chat feature. Board of Elections representatives will assist with requesting an absentee ballot, answer registration questions, and update addresses, all through our website.”

The exception sunsets July 1, long enough for the primary, but expiring prior to November’s general election. The rule will also not apply for elections postponed due to the pandemic as well as separate special elections, including the August contest to temporarily fill House District 115 on James Island. According to state Democratic leaders, getting legislators to extend the measure to the general election is not a challenge they will shy away from, and they aren’t alone.

“This is an important victory for South Carolinians who want to vote in the primary without risking their health during COVID-19,” said American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project Staff Attorney Adriel Cepeda Derieux. “We are fighting for this change for the November general election as well, in addition to the removal of the unnecessary witness requirement that continues to force South Carolinians to risk their health in order to vote.”

The ACLU also filed suit April 22 challenging the state requirement for absentee ballot request excuses along with the third-party witness signature on their ballot envelope. As the law stands, those who live alone may still have to risk exposure to the coronavirus in order to get a witness’ signature.

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