North Carolina Suspends Plan to Resolve Ballot Issue After Judge’s Rebuke

In this Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, a forklift operator loads absentee ballots for mailing at the Wake County Board of Elections as preparations for the upcoming election are ongoing in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

(CN) — With the general election just over a month away, the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Thursday suspended a plan to allow voters to correct absentee ballot problems using affidavits. 

Thousands of voters in North Carolina need to correct witness-related issues in order for their absentee ballots to be counted and last week the state elections board directed county officials to help. 

The state board requested that “cure affidavits” be sent to voters whose ballots lacked proper witness information so they may verify that their ballot is legitimate.

But the board’s executive director Karen Brinson Bell sent a memo to county election officials Thursday and urged them to halt the program pending legal review. 

“Absentee envelopes with a missing witness signature shall be kept in a secure location and shall not be considered by the county board until further notice,” Bell wrote.

Bell’s memo came after U.S. District Judge William Osteen, a George W. Bush appointee, said he is concerned that the plan to send affidavits rather than new ballots threatens the witness requirement and goes against a ruling he had issued in August.

The judge wrote on Wednesday that the board appears to “have rewritten the one-witness requirement, a statute this court previously upheld, to permit submission of an absentee ballot without a witness.”

Judge Osteen ruled in August that voters in the state must be allowed to fix their absentee ballots, but expressed the sentiment on Wednesday that the state board’s plan does not exactly comply. 

He called for a status conference for all parties involved in a related lawsuit, writing “This court finds a status conference is necessary in light of this court’s present concern that alleged compliance with this court’s order is resulting in elimination of a duly-enacted statute requiring a witness to an absentee ballot.” 

Due to Covid-19 concerns, the state decided over the summer to allow North  Carolinians to send absentee ballots with just one witness signature instead of two.

A state court hearing is scheduled for Friday to decide whether the state’s affidavit guidance can go forward under the settlement reached last week between the state elections board and the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans. 

So far, according to state board data, more than a million Tarheel State residents have requested an absentee ballot and about 304,809 have successfully cast ballots by mail.

That means 4% of registered voters in the state have already cast ballots in the general election, the board says. 

“These vote-by-mail numbers are far greater than we’ve ever seen in North Carolina history,” Bell said in a statement on Thursday. “They show that the process is working well for the vast majority of North Carolina voters who choose to vote by mail.”  

Still, data from the board shows that county officials are setting aside Black voters’ mail-in ballots at a higher rate than other voters for witness-related issues. 

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