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GOP Elections Board Members Resign Over Absentee Settlement

Boxes of absentee ballot requests sit at the Durham County Board of Elections office in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
Ben McKeown

The two Republican members of North Carolina's state elections board have resigned after signing off on a legal settlement to alter absentee ballot rules for this fall.

Their decision further accentuates the political stakes in altering this popular form of voting during the COVID-19 pandemic in the closely divided state.

Ken Raymond and David Black informed the State Board of Elections late Wednesday of the resignation, each citing in part frustration with the tentative agreement filedin court earlier this week that aimed to end litigation filed by advocacy groups and voters.

Raymond and Black say they were misled about the proposed settlement.

The full five-member board — the three Democratic appointees added — had signed off on the settlement last week, according to state board Chair Damon Circosta. Part of the agreement is already being carried out in state board guidance. Board members said they were worried that without a settlement, they risked broader voter security protections in state law could have been overturned by a court.

"Everybody on that board understood that there were certainly some merits to reasons why you'd want to settle these lawsuits, and certainly some things to consider why you wouldn't,” Circosta said.

But Raymond wrote in his resignation letter that lawyers with the state Attorney General’s office didn’t explain all the implications of the settlement before he signed off.

“It is impossible to have true bipartisanship when both sides of the political aisle do not have the important and vital information needed to make the right decisions,” Raymond wrote.

With the changes, county board officials are now telling voters they can correct problems with witness information on their absentee ballots without filling out an entirely new ballot, but rather by signing an affidavit confirming their own identity. The changes also allow six more days for officials to receive mailed absentee ballots, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, and will make it easier for absentee ballots to be handed in at early in-person voting sites when they open next month.

Black wrote in a separate letter that he didn’t have a full understanding of how the ballot fixes outlined in the settlement, particularly regarding witness information, would work.

Circosta said all board members were provided with the pros and the cons of settling lawsuits in a nearly three-hour meeting last week and in extensive briefings before that.

“Legal settlements are never perfect because, by their very nature, they require compromise,” Circosta wrote. "I was proud that our board was able to come together unanimously to make sure that every vote is secure and every voter is safe when they cast their ballot.”

Just over 1 million absentee ballots already have been requested in North Carolina, or more than five times the total number of mail-in ballots counted during the 2016 election in the state. Nearly 200,000 ballots have been returned and accepted so far. At least 1,700 other ballot envelopes have had incomplete witness information. One witness is required.

Black's and Raymond's letters focused on defending their decisions on the settlement, which has been blasted Republican legislative leaders who had intervened in the lawsuit filed by the union-affiliated North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger intend to oppose the settlement at a hearing next week to oppose the agreement.

Berger, Moore and other Republicans have portrayed the settlement as a backroom deal by the plaintiffs, whose lawsuit was bankrolled in part by national Democratic groups, Attorney General Josh Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper, whose appointees control the board. Cooper and Stein are Democrats. The Republican leaders say the settlement would essentially gut the witness requirement.

Democrats have “resorted to deceit and trickery by withholding key information from Republicans and secretly negotiating with Democratic plaintiffs to reach a collusive settlement that undoes absentee ballot fraud protections,” Berger said in a news release.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is trying to unseat Cooper in November, asked U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr on Thursday to investigate whether federal laws were violated by the “attack on the integrity of North Carolina’s elections.”

Stein, who is also seeking re-election, described it as a "negotiated compromise response" to a public health crisis, slower mail delivery and a federal judge's order last month mandating the state have a process for voters to fix ballot envelope omissions.

“The Republican Party needs to start respecting democracy, instead of undermining it,” Stein said in a news release. Cooper's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The legislature already approved absentee ballot changes this year and in 2019. They were responding to difficulties voting during the pandemic and to an absentee ballot fraud scandal in a 2018 congressional race that led to a new election.

The board's support of the proposed settlement had been unanimous. Governor Roy Cooper must now fill the vacancies from a list submitted by the state GOP.

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Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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