NC Board of Elections lawsuit settlement may bring changes to mail-in ballot process

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Some changes could be coming to the state’s mail-in ballot process, which election officials say is designed to give voters “certainty.” However, state Republican leaders said Wednesday they’re looking into options to block those changes from taking effect. 

The State Board of Elections released an agreement to settle a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans, which sued state officials over a variety of provisions related to absentee voting. 

“Voters need certainty. So, I think it was in the best interest of voters of North Carolina that we were able to provide that certainty now and make some commonsense changes, so that everybody in North Carolina can vote,” said Damon Circosta, chairman of the State Board of Elections in an interview. 

The board, which is comprised of three Democrats and two Republicans, unanimously agreed on the settlement, Circosta said. A judge will still have to consider whether to approve it. 

The agreement calls for an easier process for voters to correct mistakes in filling out their mail-in ballot. The state requires a witness to sign that ballot, write their address, and print their name. If there’s an issue with how the witness filled out that portion, the settlement allows for a voter to fill out an affidavit and send it to the county board of elections to correct that problem. Under current rules, the voter would have to get a new ballot altogether. 

Drop-off stations would also be allowed at county elections offices and at early voting sites. Circosta said those stations would be staffed, and an employee would “take down some pertinent information about who you are and your relationship to the voter before you drop off a ballot.”  

For voters who mail their ballots back to their county board of elections office, there would be more time for that ballot to make it and still count. Under current law, a ballot must be postmarked by Election Day (Nov. 3) and make it to the elections office by 5 p.m. Nov. 6. Under the agreement, your ballot still has to be postmarked by Nov. 3, but the deadline to arrive is pushed to 5 p.m. on Nov. 12.  

“The changes we made make that process easier and more safe in a COVID environment,” Circosta said. 

Republicans in the General Assembly blasted the agreement, questioning why they were not included in the discussion about it when legislative leaders were named as defendants in the lawsuit. 

“We were not consulted at all about a ‘settlement’ of the lawsuit. That strikes me, as an attorney, as totally beyond the pale,” said Senate leader Phil Berger (R). “If they weren’t trying to do something sneaky or nefarious, why did they have to do it in secret like this?” 

Berger said Republicans are discussing potential appeal options if a judge approves the settlement. There’s a hearing scheduled for Oct. 2. in Wake County. 

Circosta said: “This vote in closed session with our attorneys was a unanimous vote. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed to make these changes.”   

Berger said the changes could undo some of the protections the General Assembly approved in bipartisan bills following the ballot harvesting scheme uncovered in the state’s 9th Congressional District in 2018. 

He questioned if the latest proposed changes regarding fixing issues with the witness information would “effectively eliminate” the requirement.  

Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) said he supports the agreement.  

“I think that that shows great wisdom on the part of the Board of Elections and also great sensitivity to what’s involved in this election, the number of people who had to change the way they would normally vote,” said Blue. “As long as the changes don’t negatively affect the reliability of the vote, (we) should be willing to work the rules so they can accommodate the many concerns that people have.” 

Democratic attorney Marc Elias represented the plaintiffs in the case and had sought a variety of other changes, including that county elections boards pay for postage and eliminating the witness requirement altogether. The NCSBE said as part of the agreement that the plaintiffs have agreed not to continue seeking those changes for the 2020 election.  

Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell) criticized the board for agreeing to the changes after ballots already have started going out to voters.  

“We’re here, 41 days before an election, and Democrats are trying to change the rules of this election while it’s already underway,” he said. 

When asked about his thoughts on the unanimous decision by the board to accept the settlement, he said, “I don’t know what the two Republicans on that board were thinking.” 

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) pushed back on the notion that Democrats had “colluded” to change the rules. 

“These legislators should be ashamed of themselves for trying to undermine people’s faith in the electoral process. The Bipartisan State Board of Elections unanimously determined that these measures are important to protect the security and integrity of our election and to ensure that every eligible voter’s vote counts. Every eligible voter should be able to vote easily, safely, and securely confident that the candidate who wins the most votes will win the election,” Stein said in a statement. 

As of Wednesday, 971,631 people in North Carolina had requested mail-in ballots, according to NCSBE. So far, 173,301 have been returned and accepted. Of the 3,831 ballots not marked as accepted, NCSBE says “the main problem” is incomplete witness information.  

Democrats have outpaced Republicans in requesting mail-in ballots, accounting for about 50 percent of those requests, according to the latest NCSBE data. Republicans account for about 18 percent of requests, while the remaining requests come from unaffiliated voters.

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