NC considering later deadline for absentee ballots
Posted September 22, 2020 3:50 p.m. EDT
Updated September 23, 2020 3:06 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — The State Board of Elections announced a proposed legal settlement Tuesday that may give the Postal Service more time to deliver absentee ballots and make it easier for voters to correct ballot mistakes.
The court has to sign off on the settlement for the changes to take effect, though, and leadership in the Republican-controlled General Assembly indicated Tuesday they will fight the proposal. The court on Wednesday set an October 2 hearing date on the matter.
House Speaker Tim Moore called the settlement "utterly lawless" and said in a statement lawmakers are assessing their legal options. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called the potential changes a "full-frontal assault on election integrity laws" that "shatters confidence in the Board of Elections' intent to fairly conduct this election."
Spokespeople for the two Republican leaders said they weren't involved in settlement negotiations, even though they are intervening defendants in the case.
The proposed settlement is with the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans, which sued over several of the state's absentee ballot protocols. Marc Elias, arguably the top Democratic elections attorney in the country, represented the group.
The state board voted unanimously last week to settle this and several other outstanding lawsuits on state election rules, delegating the details to the Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell and legal staff. That decision was made after a closed-session discussion with all five members present.
David Black, one of two Republicans on the board, said he understands "a lot of folks aren't happy" with the settlement, but that "we’re not exactly in a judicial world now that leans toward the right."
Settling seemed like the best option, he said.
"There’s a little give and take on this settlement," Black said.
An attempt to reach the State Board's other Republican member, Ken Raymond, was not successful Tuesday.
Under the proposal, voters would still need a witness to sign their ballot envelope. But, if the witness fails to sign or makes a mistake, the voter wouldn't have to cast a new ballot. Instead, the voter could fill out an affidavit, and the original ballot would count.
This is already the procedure if a voter fails to sign his or her own ballot, and the most common problem – by far – with ballots that have already been returned for this election is with the witness section.
In his statement Tuesday, Berger, R-Rockingham, said the change was tantamount to eliminating witness requirements altogether for absentee ballots.
Election officials have repeatedly asked voters to mail their ballots early and to follow ballot instructions carefully.
The settlement also proposes a new cutoff date for absentee ballots to arrive and be counted: Nov. 12. State law currently requires a ballot to arrive by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6.
Ballots would still have to be postmarked on or before Election Day, but this would give the U.S. Postal Service, which has warned of delays, more time to deliver ballots to county election offices.
Lawmakers discussed extending the current deadline when they met to tinker with absentee ballot rules earlier this year but decided against it. Both Moore and Berger accused Gov. Roy Cooper, who appoints the State Board of Elections, and Attorney General Josh Stein of colluding with national Democrats to change the rules despite the legislature's decision.
"Roy Cooper and Josh Stein are attempting to gut the integrity of North Carolina voting laws by colluding with partisan Democratic attorneys from Washington, D.C., while ballots are already being cast in this presidential election," Moore, R-Cleveland, said in statement.
"The collusive consent order unilaterally rewrites state law to provide nine full days of uncertainty and opportunity for gamesmanship after Election Day," Berger said in his statement.
Stein said in a statement that Berger and Moore, "should be ashamed of themselves for trying to undermine people's faith in the electoral process."
"The bipartisan State Board of Elections unanimously determined that these measures are important to protect the security and integrity of our election and to ensure that every eligible voter’s vote counts," Stein said. "Every eligible voter should be able to vote easily, safely, and securely confident that the candidate who wins the most votes will win the election.”
The settlement would also allow voters who hand-deliver their absentee ballots to election offices to identify themselves orally instead of signing in on a log. Only voters and close relatives are allowed to handle a ballot, and Berger's office said eliminating the log requirement would "allow anonymous drop boxes for ballot harvesters."
The proposed settlement comes from one of several pending lawsuits touching on absentee and other state voting laws. More settlement announcements are expected in the coming days after the state board's decision last week.
Some of the lawsuits overlap, dealing with the same or similar rules.
The state expects a massive increase this year in voting by mail. Nearly 950,000 people had requested absentee ballots in North Carolina through Monday, an increase of nearly 20,000 in just 24 hours.
The requests add up to a little more than 13 percent of registered voters in the state.
Almost 17 percent of the ballots requested – 156,979 – have already been returned. That means about 1.74 percent of all registered voters in the state have already cast a ballot.
About 55 percent of the ballot requests came from registered Democrats, 16 percent came from registered Republicans and 29 percent from unaffiliated voters.
Of the ballots returned, 3,314 can't be accepted yet. The State Board of Elections shows that many that are incomplete, spoiled or pending, and three of them are listed as duplicates.