Judge OK's North Carolina plan to ease absentee voting rules
Posted October 2, 2020 7:02 p.m. EDT
Updated October 2, 2020 9:29 p.m. EDT
RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Carolina judge approved a newly reached settlement Friday to extend the time for counties to collect absentee ballots and make it easier for people to correct missing witness information on their ballot.
The State Board of Elections struck a deal last week with the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans allowing mail-in ballots to be accepted through Nov. 12 as long as they are postmarked by Election Day on Nov. 3 – a six-day extension of the previous Nov. 6 deadline.
The decision by Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins to approve that agreement also means county election officials can mail voters an affidavit that can be returned to remedy any outstanding issues with their ballot. Voters previously needed to send an entirely new ballot to correct issues with incomplete witness information.
Under state law, North Carolina voters this election cycle must have one witness sign off on their ballot for it to be counted. Republican lawmakers have pushed back hard against the settlement, arguing it essentially does away with the witness requirement the General Assembly specifically decided to keep in state law earlier this year.
The procedure isn't final yet: Three different federal cases tied to many of the same issues remain pending.
There's a hearing in one next week. Two others – filed last weekend by North Carolina Republicans and President Donald Trump's re-election campaign – got a hearing Friday evening in Raleigh. U.S. District Judge James Dever said he would rule "in due course" on a requested GOP temporary restraining order that could potentially moot the state court decision.
When it announced the settlement on Sept. 22, the state board said that the rule changes should be implemented by county boards immediately based on emergency powers it argued its executive director had under state law. Collins sided with the board on Friday, saying it had the authority to implement the changes in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is in the very strong public interest in having some certainty in our elections procedures and rules, and the Board of Elections has a strong incentive to settle this case ... and to provide some public confidence in the safety and security of this election in light of all of the challenges of COVID,” Collins said from the bench.
The NC Alliance for retired Americans had argued older people face additional hurdles getting a witness to sign off on their ballots, thus impeding their right to vote during the coronavirus pandemic. Other groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have sought to eliminate the witness requirement altogether.
According to state data, Black voters have had their absentee ballots set aside by county boards because of incomplete witness information at a higher rate than other voters.
In a unanimous bipartisan vote last week, the State Board of Elections decided to settle its complaint with the alliance, which it sought court approval from on Friday. The two Republicans on the five-member board who voted to support the settlement resigned shortly after receiving pushback from GOP leadership in the state. The North Carolina Republican Party has accused Democrats of misleading the two members into supporting the easing of certain voting procedures.
Collins dismissed GOP allegations that Democratic board members colluded with Attorney General Josh Stein when directing counties to send out affidavits.
“It is not illegal," Collins said. "It is not a product of collusion.”
GOP attorneys at the hearing were denied a request for more time for discovery to search for evidence to substantiate their claims.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced shortly after the hearing that he would challenge Collins' decision.
“The secretive effort by Attorney General Josh Stein and the N.C. State Board of Elections to rewrite that law while voting is underway is wrong, inappropriate and creating chaos,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a statement. “Judge Collins, who issued a ruling last year trying to deem the entire legislature a ‘usurper body,’ unsurprisingly sided with unelected Democrats in their effort to rewrite election law while voting is already underway."
Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew in Raleigh contributed to this report. WRAL Statehouse Reporter Travis Fain contributed to this report.