Thousands of North Carolina ballots in limbo amid challenges over rule changes

More than 1 million North Carolinians have requested absentee ballots.

October 5, 2020, 4:58 PM

A whirlwind of competing lawsuits and legal actions has thousands of ballots in North Carolina in limbo.

With just a few weeks left until the Oct. 27 deadline to request absentee ballots, the North Carolina State Board of Elections has no clear plan for fixing errors on voters' mail-in ballots.

As of Oct. 4, 7,272 ballots are classified as "pending cure," meaning there is missing information on the ballot or envelope. "Currently the cure process is being considered by the courts. We will contact you soon with more information," county election board employees are being instructed to tell voters who call about the status of their ballot.

On Sunday, North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson-Bell sent a memo to local boards directing them to "take no action" on ballots that come in with mistakes on the envelopes. Brinson-Bell said the decision is to avoid confusion while matters are pending in several courts. "Envelopes with deficiencies shall be kept in a secure location and shall not be considered by the county board until future notice," according to the memo.

The North Carolina state board announced last week new rules it says make it easier for voters to fix or "cure" mail-in ballots. The changes were included in a joint settlement agreement with North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans after the group filed a lawsuit challenging several absentee voting processes.

Under the agreement, the NCSBE would allow voters who are missing witness signatures or addresses on their ballot envelope to correct the mistake by filling out an affidavit instead of completing a new ballot. The settlement also allows election boards to accept absentee ballots up to nine days after the election if they are postmarked by Nov. 3.

A county judge approved the settlement last Friday, but the next day a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order banning the NCSBE from enacting the changes.

The federal order came after North Carolina Republicans appealed the settlement decision and joined the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee in filing lawsuits to block the rule changes.

The lawsuit from the Trump campaign calls the settlement agreement an attempt to "undermine protections that help ensure the upcoming election will be not only safe and accessible but secure, fair, and credible."

While challenges work their way through the legal system, Brinson-Bell said the absentee ballot process is running smoothly. "These vote-by-mail numbers are far greater than we've ever seen. They show the process is working well for the vast majority of North Carolina voters who choose to vote by mail," she said in a statement. County boards of elections began reviewing absentee ballots on Sept. 29 and have approved about 300,000 ballots so far. Approved ballots are put into a voting machine during public board meetings, but the results will not be tabulated and reported until Election Day.

About 3.4% of the absentee ballots returned had an error that needed to be corrected, according to data from the NCSBE. "We strongly encourage voters to carefully read the instructions and be sure to complete all required fields. But if they make a mistake, there is still time to fix it," Brinson-Bell said.

More than 1 million North Carolinians have requested absentee ballots. Many of those residents are voting by mail for the first time and experts say changing the rules could cause confusion.

"I can't imagine any other area of our lives where this happens," VoteAmerica CEO Debra Cleaver told ABC News. "Imagine changing the rules of a baseball game in the third inning. I think it sends a message to voters that perhaps people are trying to make it difficult for them to cast a ballot."

VoteAmerica is a nonpartisan organization working to increase voter turnout. The group uses direct mail, text messages, ads and other outreach methods to send voters information about registration deadlines and when and where they can cast ballots. This year the group is focusing some of its messaging on dispelling misinformation about the election. "Unfortunately, because of disinformation spreading about mail ballot security, we're seeing shenanigans in places like North Carolina," Cleaver said.

North Carolina's attorney general is also working to boost voter confidence in the state's election process. "North Carolina's election system is strong," Attorney General Josh Stein wrote in a newsletter. "However you choose to cast your ballot in the upcoming elections - by mail, during the early voting period, or on Election Day - please know your vote will count, your voice will be heard, and the candidate who garners the most votes will be the winner."

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