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A federal judge's order Monday made it easier for South Carolina residents to cast their votes in the June primary, throwing out the requirement that a witness sign mail-in absentee ballots.

The order waiving the absentee ballot signature requirement is the latest measure that loosens South Carolina's laundry list of election safeguards that have become problematic as residents follow guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A lawsuit filed on behalf of several S.C. voters, candidates and interest groups argued that the arcane rules make it more difficult for voters to participate in June primaries without exposing themselves to the dangerous and hard-to-treat virus.

Earlier this month, state lawmakers fast-tracked a temporary rule that provides a one-time "State of Emergency" addition to the normal list of state-approved excuses that permit someone to cast their ballot through the mail or at a local election office. The exception sunsets in July.
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Voters in South Carolina have until Friday, June 5 to request their absentee ballot for the June election, which includes county, state, and federal primary contests. (Visit SCVotes.org for info.) Ballots must be returned to the county election office by 7 p.m. on election day, June 9.

Thousands of absentee ballots have already been requested and returned, but state elections officials say that all ballots will be counted regardless of whether a signature is present if the ballot is otherwise valid.

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Attorneys leading the case, including state and national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) groups, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and national Democratic Party organizations, asked for several additional exceptions, but District Judge Michelle Childs agreed only to a temporary injunction blocking the enforcement of the witness requirement.

"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," said Susan Dunn of the ACLU of South Carolina in a press release.

In filings by the parties bringing the suit, one expert contended that the overall risk to public health is compounded for minority groups at higher risk for COVID-19.

"[Minorities'] risk [of] COVID-19 infection is tied to pre-existing and evolving inequities in structural systems and social conditions," read Dr. Courtney Cogburn's declaration, quoted in Monday's ruling. "As a result, any voting requirement requiring them to break social distancing protocols would place them at higher risk for infection and also threatens public health of the Black community more broadly."

So far in South Carolina, black patients make up 52 percent of COVID-19 deaths, but only 27 percent of the overall population, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Claims that witnesses prevented election fraud were "undermined," Childs wrote, by state election leaders themselves. In a March letter to Gov. Henry McMaster referenced in the order, S.C. Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino admitted officials had no way to verify the signatures.

State Democratic Party and ACLU officials previously said they will also ask for coronavirus-related exceptions for the November general election.

"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," said ACLU Voting Rights Project attorney Adriel Cepeda Derieux earlier this month.

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