RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina election officials agreed Tuesday that mail-in absentee ballots returned this fall with deficient information can be fixed without forcing the voter to fill out a new blank ballot. The change, if it stands, would likely yield an upward tick in the number of counted ballots in this presidential battleground state.
The State Board of Elections issued the new guidance to county boards explaining residents won't be forced to start over from scratch in casting votes if a witness fails to sign or provide an address on the envelope containing their absentee ballot. The guidance means that the ballot now won't be considered “spoiled,” and the voter will be sent an affidavit to sign to rectify the problem.
Issues with deficient witness information on mail-in ballots have disproportionately affected Black voters. Ballots cast by African Americans account for about 43 percent of those classified as having incomplete witness information, according to state elections data. Yet Black residents account for 16 percent of overall ballots returned.
Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who helped sue in North Carolina court to seek the changes and has worked on similar absentee ballot litigation elsewhere, praised the decision.
“The steps (the board) agreed to take will enfranchise tens of thousands of voters, or more,” tweeted Ellis, who helped the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans in the lawsuit.
The absentee ballot adjustments are part of a proposed joint settlement filed in Wake County court between the State Board of Elections and the alliance, a union-affiliated group. The alliance argued that restrictive absentee rules burdened their right to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, in violation of the state constitution.
Republican legislative leaders who had intervened in the lawsuit blasted the agreement by the board. They contended the Democrats “colluded” to weaken absentee laws approved overwhelmingly by the General Assembly. A judge is being asked to accept the settlement. The GOP lawmakers could go to court to stop its enforcement, which if successful could scuttle the changes.
“These actions are utterly lawless and we are reviewing them to assess all of our legal options," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a news release. The five-member board is controlled by appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. But board Chairman Damon Circosta said the alterations announced Tuesday were backed unanimously by both Democratic and Republican members.
From over 7 million registered voters in North Carolina, nearly 950,000 mail-in ballots already have requested for November. It's a massive number compared to previous election cycles as people worried about the coronavirus favor traditional absentee ballots compared to in-person voting. Blank ballots began getting sent out in early September, and more than 153,000 ballots have already been returned and accepted for counting as of Tuesday morning, according to state data.
The state said about 1,700 ballots had been returned with incomplete witness information, making it the most common reason that ballots weren’t accepted.
The lawsuit was bankrolled in part by the National Redistricting Foundation, a Democratic group whose parent committee is led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Another absentee ballot lawsuit that was filed said voters with missing witness information were being treated differently than those who simply failed to sign the envelope containing their completed ballot. They could sign an affidavit. Now under Tuesday's settlement, those with missing witness information also can correct the issue by signing an affidavit.
The agreement with the North Carolina Alliance also says county board officials will now accept absentee ballots received through Nov. 12, as long as they were postmarked or turned in by Election Day. The previous rules had limited their receipt through Nov. 6.
And county election boards will make it easier for people to turn in their absentee ballots or those of a relative at early in-person voting sites across the state when they open in mid-October. They won't have to fill out a voting log, but rather an election worker will do it for them.
“Voters deserve certainty. Our board, both Democrats and Republicans, agreed unanimously to make these commonsense changes to our process amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Circosta said in a statement. “We have ensured that our election process is secure and accessible.”
Republican lawmakers said the changes stand to weaken rules approved following evidence of absentee ballot fraud in a 2018 congressional race that led to a brand new election.
North Carolina is one of eight states with witness and or notary public requirements for absentee ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. North Carolina state law usually demands two witnesses, but lawmakers reduced the requirement to one this year because people isolated due to at-risk health conditions may find it difficult to locate two.