Court lets North Carolina keep absentee deadline extension

Published 11:50 pm Wednesday, October 21, 2020

By Jonathan Drew
Associated Press

North Carolina can accept absentee ballots that are postmarked by Election Day for more than a week afterward, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to block an extension for accepting the ballots that was announced in late September. The State Board of Elections decided then that absentee ballots could be accepted until Nov. 12 as long as they were mailed by Election Day, lengthening the timeframe from three to nine days. The change was made as part of a legal settlement with voting rights advocates.

State and national Republican leaders went to court to fight the deadline extension. But the federal appeals court denied their emergency request to block the change.

The court’s majority opinion notes that ballots must still be postmarked by Election Day to be counted. The opinion says that “everyone must submit their ballot by the same date. The extension merely allows more lawfully cast ballots to be counted, in the event there are any delays precipitated by an avalanche of mail-in ballots.”

The opinion also noted that if the court forced the state to shorten the deadline, it would violate a legal principle that limits how federal courts intervene in ballot rules close to an election.

The ruling was decided 12-3. All 15 of the court’s active judges participated, rather than a smaller panel, in a sign of the case’s importance.

Last week, a judge in a lower federal court ruled the state couldn’t accept absentee ballots that lacked a witness signature, forcing them to rewrite some procedures for handling mail-in votes. But he declined to intervene on the deadline for accepting absentee ballots.

Republicans including state legislative leaders and lawyers for President Donald Trump’s campaign then asked the 4th Circuit to step in.