A federal ruling Wednesday requires all absentee ballots in North Carolina to have a witness signature even if the voter separately confirms their vote.
The order changes a previous guideline set by the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Sept. 22 that could be used to circumvent the witness requirement for absentee ballots. The ruling was made by Judge William Osteen Jr. in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, who has overseen many other election rulings so far this year.
The guidelines say that voters with mistakes on their absentee ballots can go through a curing process. Before this ruling, if a ballot was missing a witness signature, voters could fill out a separate form to correct the mistake before Election Day. The certification could then be signed by the voter without the need of a witness.
This was part of what prompted former board members David Black and Ken Raymond to resign on Sept. 23.
But now, if a witness signature is missing or invalid, the voter has to send in a completely new ballot.
One of the cases associated with the decision is being defended in part by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Mitchell Brown, who works for the SCSJ, said that ballot curing was more important this year because of the pandemic.
“If you’ve voted in person your whole entire life and then all of a sudden you have to go through a whole different process to vote by mail, you’re bound to make mistakes,” Brown said. “You didn’t put your address on the ballot, you didn’t sign the ballot or various other simple fixes.”
The Wednesday federal ruling began with a Sept. 26 request from plaintiffs, including N.C. House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, for a restraining order on curing absentee ballots that lack a witness signature.
The plaintiffs stated they made the request because they believe state legislatures should govern elections, not other parties.
“As North Carolina’s ‘Legislature,’ the General Assembly is tasked with regulating federal elections in North Carolina,” the request stated.
The request claimed that the N.C. State Board of Elections attempted to assert emergency powers unlawfully when making the Sept. 22 update to the ballot cure process guidelines.
In response to this request, on Oct. 1, the N.C. Board of Elections requested that county boards of elections stop processing absentee ballots with a missing witness signature, holding some voters' ballots in limbo.
What the ruling means
Wednesday’s order now requires voters with a missing witness signature on their ballot to send in a completely new ballot or vote using a different method. Osteen ruled that smaller fixes, such as an incomplete witness address or a witness signature in the wrong place, could still be cured using a cure certification.
Brown said prior to the Aug. 21 ballot curing guidelines set by the N.C. State Board of Elections, North Carolina did not have a uniform ballot curing process.
“Some counties would throw it away, some counties would keep it and help you fix it, but it wasn’t uniform,” he said. “I think that, at a base level, that’s what we’re trying to get after. That there needs to be a uniform cure process from the State Board.”
Theodore Shaw, a law professor at UNC and member of the National Task Force on Election Crises, said people should be given the opportunity to correct benign violations.
“Many people believe that this election is going to be extremely close, as have been some of the recent elections, both in presidential election years but also 2018,” Shaw said. “When you have these close races, the old (saying) that every vote counts is really proven.”
As of Oct. 15, more than 500,000 absentee ballots have been cast in North Carolina.
Registered voters in North Carolina can request an absentee ballot until Oct. 27. For those who don't want to vote by mail, early voting sites in North Carolina are open from Oct. 15 through Oct. 31. Voters will also be able to vote in person on Election Day, Nov. 3.
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