Deficient NC absentee ballots frozen pending further rulings

Published 11:48 pm Saturday, October 17, 2020

By Jonathan Drew
Associated Press

A lawyer for North Carolina’s State Board of Elections said Friday that time is running out to process 10,000 absentee ballots with incomplete witness information and other errors after state and federal judges put additional freezes on the process.

Counties had already been under instructions issued Oct. 4 by the state elections board to set deficient absentee ballots aside and take no further action while multiple lawsuits over absentee voting rules unfold.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a stay Thursday night that froze updated rules announced last month for dealing with absentee ballot problems through at least Monday, pending further legal arguments in a state lawsuit. Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge William Osteen also ruled to maintain a freeze issued by a federal court on the same rules through the end of Friday.

The state elections board will seek to have the state court stay removed so counties can begin asking voters to correct deficient ballots, said Alex Peters, a lawyer in the attorney general’s office who’s representing the state board.

The state estimates that 10,000 absentee ballots with various deficiencies are on hold, and those voters can’t even be notified unless the state and federal courts allow the state to move forward with updated absentee ballot rules, Peters said at a hearing Friday morning in the state lawsuit.

“The current situation is paralysis,” he told a judge, adding: “There is simply not time to keep litigating this.”

The State Board of Elections advised counties Thursday that more detailed guidelines on dealing with deficient ballots would be issued after the lawsuits are resolved.

With less than three weeks until the election, Peters said time is running out for voters to address absentee ballot problems.

A key issue being considered by state and federal appeals courts is what to do with absentee ballots that come in with incomplete information on who witnessed the ballot. Under state law, voters casting the mail-in ballots must have another adult serve as a witness to their vote.

Osteen ruled earlier in the week that voters must start their absentee ballots over from the beginning if they return them without a witness signature. But he said other minor problems such as an incomplete witness address could be fixed through a less strict means such as sending back an affidavit. However, those fixes can’t move forward under the orders issued Thursday.

Republican leaders are also asking the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to shorten a deadline for county boards to accept absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day but are postmarked by Nov. 3. In late September, the state board increased that period from three days to nine as part of the legal settlement in state court with voting rights advocates.