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NC absentee ballots must have witness signatures, judge rules

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 10/15/2020 By Danielle Battaglia, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
logo: Stickers that read "I Voted By Mail" sit on a table waiting to be stuffed into envelopes by absentee ballot election workers at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2020. © Logan Cyrus/Getty Images North America/TNS Stickers that read "I Voted By Mail" sit on a table waiting to be stuffed into envelopes by absentee ballot election workers at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2020.

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge ordered more changes Wednesday to absentee voting rules after hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots have been cast and as early, in-person voting gets underway Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen criticized the NC State Board of Elections, saying it had misconstrued or misinterpreted findings he made in August in a way that changed election rules from what had been decided by the state lawmakers who hold authority under the U.S. Constitution to do so.

On Oct. 2, a Wake County judge accepted a settlement agreement between the elections board and challengers who were suing to ease rules for voters. For absentee ballots missing a signature from a witness, the settlement would have allowed voters to sign a statement verifying it was their ballot. That would have allowed those ballots to be accepted without a witness signature.

In August, Osteen determined that North Carolina had no statewide procedure to notify a voter that their ballot was rejected or give them a means to be heard on why their ballot should stand. He said due process was needed.

But on Wednesday, he added that his order for due process was to help the voters, not a means for the board to undermine legislative authority.

Osteen said lawyers used his words out of context to get the Wake County judge to agree for the board to “usurp” legislative authority.

“This court upheld the witness requirement — to claim a cure which eliminates the witness requirement is consistent with this court’s order is a gross mischaracterization of the relief granted,” Osteen said.

All five board members agreed on the settlement that did away with the witness requirement in a state lawsuit before it reached the judge. That included the board’s two Republican members who resigned afterward.

But Republican Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore asked Osteen and another federal judge to intervene.

Osteen told the board of elections Wednesday that it cannot accept ballots without witness signatures. He said the board can still allow voters to fix minor problems like addresses or signatures written on the wrong lines.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice represented the plaintiffs in one of the three election lawsuits.

“Now that county boards of elections have the clarification they needed on the cure process, they can restart the important work of helping voters address potential issues and making sure every ballot cast is counted,” Allison Riggs, the organization’s chief voting rights counsel and interim executive director, said in a statement.

In response to Osteen’s order Wednesday, Moore said: “North Carolinians can have confidence a bipartisan witness requirement for absentee ballots has been upheld by federal courts, in a win for the democratic process against unacceptable partisan collusion.”

Berger also issued a statement. “Judge Osteen was right to stop the Board’s elimination of the absentee ballot witness requirement,” he said.

But another order issued by Osteen said he did not have authority to block some of the settlement agreement.

The two other rule changes made by the settlement allows for the board for elections to continue collecting ballots through Nov. 9 if they are postmarked by 5 p.m. Nov. 3, Election Day. The other allows ballots to be counted if they are left in drop boxes at early-voting sites and elections offices.

Berger said he disagrees that Osteen can’t intervene in all of the changes.

“This all started because of the board’s 11th-hour decision to rewrite election laws after ballots had already been cast,” Berger said.

Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, said in a written statement that he, too, was grateful for Osteen’s decision.

“My team is reviewing the lengthy orders,” Stein said in a written statement. “But I’m pleased the federal court has left the consent order largely intact. It’s time for the lawsuits to come to an end.

“The outcome of the election should be in the hands of the people, not the courts. Let’s vote.”

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©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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