CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Thousands of mail-in ballots across South Carolina were not counted because they lacked a voter signature, a witness signature or they were returned late.
So far, the South Carolina State Election Commission reports a total of 4,331 mail-in ballots were not counted, of those, 3,127 were invalidated because of the witness signature.
State lawmakers changed the voting rules this year to allow everyone to vote by mail, but battle over a witness signature dragged out and caused confusion. Initially, mail-in ballots did not need a witness signature, however a court ruling reversed that decision and every ballot from Oct. 8 and later required the additional signature.
Lauren Harper is a senior advisor at Secure the Ballot, a non-profit organization engaging minority and rural communities in the south by helping register people to vote.
This year a bulk of their efforts were spent on educating people on how to vote by mail or absentee.
“It was confusing to say the least. I work in politics and government every day and I still was confused,” Harper said. “For people to think that they need a witness and then they don’t and then they do, it’s just too much. . . People need to be able to cast their ballot in an educated manner and know that the rules are going to be consistent from year to year.”
The counties with most mail-in ballots invalidated were Richland (442), Beaufort (436), Greenville (365), Dorchester (334) and Horry (232).
Berkeley County had 132 ballots not counted, and Charleston had 122 invalidated.
While the total number of votes is less than 0.2 percent of all registered voters who cast ballots on Nov. 3, it potentially could have impacted local races. The Beaufort City Council could have been one of those contests.
The race featured six candidates vying for two seats. The top three candidates were separated by 192 votes. Incumbent Michael McFee found himself in third place, just 92 votes behind Mitch Mitchell.
“l would love 100 extra votes, but I congratulate my colleagues who will be serving on council,” McFee said. “We don’t want any lost votes. It’s the kind of thing where you want to make all opportunities to educate people as to how they need to send in the absentee votes. I think our local registrar and South Carolina Votes does a great job of making the information available.”
McFee, who has been on the council since 2008, says there is no bad blood among the candidates. Every election there are votes that cannot be counted. McFee says he is surprised the number is not higher.
“Given this election, given the importance nationally, statewide and locally it was well attended," he said. "I think for a county our size to have 400 plus votes to be the total number of votes improperly done is actually pretty low.”
Mcfee says there is nothing more to be done and plans to run for the council seat being vacated by Stephen Murray who was elected mayor.
However, not everyone is willing to excuse what happened with mail-in ballots.
Harper says the state needs to answer for the confusion surrounding the witness signature requirement.
“We have got to do better across the board with elections in South Carolina,” Harper said, suggesting a lawsuit is not outside the realm of possibility. “If someone has the time and the energy and a good lawyer, then go for it. If you know your voice wasn’t heard in the November 2020 election, then I think that we should be able to take that course of action. However, I am not a lawyer so I cannot speak to what is legal.”
We reached out to several lawyers and activist groups about whether or not a lawsuit is being prepared. So far, no lawsuits have been filed regarding mail-in ballots that were thrown out in the Lowcountry.