Record-breaking number of mail-in absentee ballots set to be rejected in South Carolina

Updated: Oct. 23, 2020 at 7:14 PM EDT
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ROCK HILL, S.C. (WBTV) - With just 11 days until Election Day, South Carolina election officials have already rejected 1,500 ballots.

For perspective, in the 2016 presidential election, 1,600 ballots total were rejected.

State election officials say we could see way more than 1,500 rejected ballots this year though. Some counties have not updated the ballot checking systems regularly, which means there are more ballots being rejected than the current data available.

There are three reasons why your ballot would be rejected: no voter signature, no witness signature and it’s returned too late. The witness signature is the biggest reason why a ballot is not counted.

South Carolina Election Commission’s Director of Public Information Chris Whitmire says this year could see record rejections for two reasons.

The first is there are three times as many absentee ballots cast by mail. As of noon today, 309,000 mail-in ballots have been cast. In 2016, a little over 130,000 were cast. It leaves the room for more mistakes.

The second reason is the witness signature. Within about a month the witness signature requirement went back and forth about four times before it was required.

The Supreme Court ruled witness signatures were required earlier this month. It was the fourth and final decision happening after some people had already voted.

Whitmire says it created confusion as election officials waited for a set answer. “Its back and forth it’s on it’s off," says Whitmire. "During that time all we could do is say here’s what the law is today and warn voters that it could change.”

Jeanette Kettlewell dropped off her absentee ballot along with her husband’s and daughter’s. She has a laundry list of reasons why. None of which included not wanting to be caught without a signature.

“It’s more of a convenience thing," says Kettlewell. “It’s a lot easier on all of us to get it out and we expected early voting turnout to be good and of course the pandemic.”

Kettlewell’s move to drop off her absentee ballot could protect her from rejection. The poll worker checked the ballots for witness and voter signatures before it was dropped in the box. When asked how she felt about the 1,500 who had already been rejected, she was saddened but understanding.

“That’s really unfortunate," she says. "I’d rather all votes be counted and not rejected on technicality.

Not only will a potential record-breaking rejection year happen because of the on again off again witness signatures, but also the sheer amount of absentee ballots this year.

“The potential for confusion about it and the volume of absentee ballots could increase the numbers that are rejected which is a shame," says Whitmore.

Whitmire says in past years, election officials would let voters correct the signatureless ballot. It is called ballot curing, but after witness signatures were debated in the highest court of the land, curing was cancelled.

“This issue was never really raised to the level of what is the law saying about this and is this allowable? We have to have some definitive answer and that happened this year," he says.

The Election Commission’s board scoured the law and the Supreme Court decision for ballot curing allowance. After finding none, the board barred ballot curing two days after the Supreme Court ruling, on October 7th. It is a decision Kettlewell thinks protects the election.

“Everybody should have a voice but I think they should air on the side of caution," she says.

A person is not alerted if a ballot is rejected. Whitmire says if someone has already cast a ballot and wants to find out if it was rejected, call the county elections office.

As far as putting ballot curing back on the table, he says there is a way. Legislature will have to pass a law.

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