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Agreement reached: Mail-in ballots without witness signatures won't count in NC

Posted October 19, 2020 2:01 p.m. EDT
Updated October 19, 2020 11:05 p.m. EDT

— The State Board of Elections will go back to its old way of dealing with absentee ballots mailed in without a witness signature: The voter will have to fill out a new ballot and get a signature for his or her vote to count.

The decision came over the weekend, and Attorney General Josh Stein's office informed one of the two courts overseeing various lawsuits filed over the procedure, and a handful of others, that the policy shift would take effect Monday.

A number of left-leaning groups targeted the policy in lawsuits filed earlier this year, saying ballots missing witness signatures should be "cured" the same way a number of other problems with mail-in absentee ballots get fixed: By sending voters a certification they can sign, attesting to the validity of their votes, and not requiring new ballots.

The State Board of Elections agreed to the change a few weeks ago as part of a broader lawsuit settlement, but Republican leaders cried foul, saying the change subverted state law by allowing absentee ballots to count without witness signaturees. That triggered more lawsuits and a back and forth that was resolved, on this issue at least, by a letter Stein's office sent out Sunday with a new State Board of Elections memo attached explaining the procedure to county elections offices.

Those offices have been holding on to ballots missing witness signatures, awaiting a decision. Now they will "spoil" ballots without signatures, meaning they won't count, and the affected voters will have an opportunity to fill out another ballot. This may be thousands of ballots, but a small percentage of the total ballots cast.

Other problems can be fixed by just having the voter fill out an affidavit/certification. Those include if the voter didn't initially sign the ballot's voter certification, if he or she signed in the wrong place, if the witness signed but failed to print his or her name as well, or if the witness did not print his or her address on the ballot envelope.

Attorneys for Republicans pushing back against the state board's initial change have agreed to the new arrangement, according to Stein's letter, which includes an attached email from one of those attorneys consenting.

A handful of other issues are still pending on North Carolina election rules, with the most notable being the date ballots must be returned in order to count.

State law says ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3, and arrive in local offices by Nov. 6. But as part of this same settlement process, the state board tried to extend that to Nov. 12.

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