Federal judge weighs in on NC voting rules, warns state to take pandemic voting seriously

Judge says no to extending voter registration period, relaxing some absentee ballot requirements, yes to letting nursing home employees help residents vote.

Posted Updated
Election Day, polling places
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
GREENSBORO, N.C. — A federal judge tweaked some of North Carolina's voting rules Tuesday and left the others intact, even as he warned the state to take its elections response to the coronavirus pandemic seriously.

Among other things, U.S. District Judge William Osteen declined to extend the state's voter registration period, set to end now 25 days before the Nov. 3 elections, or to require election offices to offer secure, no-contact drop boxes for absentee ballots.

He also left in place a one-witness requirement for absentee ballots, a rule that left-leaning groups had targeted as an unfair voting restriction during the ongoing pandemic, given the need for social distancing and the higher risk senior citizens face from the coronavirus.

But Osteen's 188-page order forbids state and local election officials from rejecting absentee ballots simply because of a signature mismatch or bad witness contact information. That rule will stay in place until the state puts together a process that lets voters be heard before their absentee ballot is rejected, something Osteen said the state is working on.

The order also blocks a number of rules forbidding nursing home employees from helping people vote by mail, saying coronavirus visitation restrictions at the homes may make it impossible for family members to assist, potentially denying people their right to vote.

That injunction will stay in place "until such time as a plan exists that would reasonably allow a disabled individual affected by these statutes to vote," Osteen said in his order.

The order solidifies some of the ground rules for the November elections in North Carolina, but this is one of at least nine current lawsuits targeting various parts of the state's voting laws. It was filed by Democracy North Carolina and the League of Women Voters, veterans in the state's long-running legal battles over election laws.

The groups argued that North Carolina's voting laws aren't up to the challenges of the pandemic, despite the bipartisan rewrite lawmakers approved earlier this year. Among other things, the General Assembly dialed back on absentee ballot witness requirements, going from two signatures to one.

Those absentee requirements were just rewritten last year, after an absentee ballot harvesting scam in and around Bladen County led to a do-over election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District.

That was the area Senate Republicans focused on in a statement Tuesday after Osteen's order was published.

"These partisan lawsuits undermine trust in elections by seeking to legalize ballot harvesting and make it easier to commit absentee ballot fraud," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said in the statement. "We’re glad a federal judge drew the line on these dangerous attempts to undermine election security."

But Osteen said the plaintiffs in the case "raised genuine issues of concern" and suggested they go beyond what his order addressed.

"Should legislative and executive defendants believe these issues may now be discounted or disregarded for purposes of the impending election, they would be sorely mistaken," he wrote.

Osteen counseled Gov. Roy Cooper's administration and legislators to "carefully consider" suggestions in the suit, as well as recommendations from state Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, only some of which were part of this summer's elections bill.

"Any failure by the state government to carefully plan, maintain flexibility and alternatives to potential problems, and consider new and unique ways of addressing an election conducted during a global pandemic could easily lead to the same difficulties experienced by Georgia and other states holding elections during this pandemic, resulting in voters unable to exercise their fundamental right to vote," Osteen wrote.


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