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Federal judge in North Carolina blocks part of a Republican-backed elections law

Voters walk inside The Maxwell Center to cast their ballots during early voting in Goldsboro Friday morning October 21, 2022.
Jonathon Gruenke
File photo of voters walking inside The Maxwell Center to cast their ballots during early voting in Goldsboro Friday morning October 21, 2022.

A federal judge has ruled that a provision of the Republican-backed elections law passed in October over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto would cause "irreparable" harm to voters.

Judge Thomas Schroeder, of the Middle District of North Carolina, issued a preliminary injunction on Sunday, blocking that part of the law from taking effect unless revised.

The North Carolina General Assembly's GOP majority pushed the law through in October, triggering changes to the state's elections administration scheme just ahead of this year's primaries.

The major changes include eliminating a three-day grace period for receiving and counting mail ballots postmarked by Election Day. The deadline for mail-in ballots is now the close of polls on Election Day.

A lawsuit filed by the groups Voto Latino, Watauga County Voting Rights Task Force, and Down Home North Carolina, challenged parts of the law, including a provision that would have tightened rules around same-day registration.

Address verification for same-day registrants is at issue

Existing law requires an address-verification process for people who want to register to vote. In all cases, applicants get registered if the postal service does not return the non-forwardable address verification cards.

If a first and then second verification card get returned as undeliverable then the county elections board would not register the voter.

For same-day registrants—voters who seek to cast an in-person ballot and register in the same day at an early voting site—the rules are similar. The voter would get registered if a first verification card is not returned as undeliverable.

But things get a bit more complicated in the shortened period between early voting and the county canvass, when final vote tallies are certified and recorded.

Under current law, if a second verification card arrives at the county elections board as undeliverable after the canvass, the same-day registrant's ballot would get counted even though their address could not be verified. If the second card gets returned as undeliverable before the county canvass then the law provides for a challenge procedure, including a formal hearing.

The GOP-backed law passed in October would have eliminated the need for county elections boards to send a second verification card out to applicants if the first one was returned by the postal service as undeliverable. Under the amended legislation, the county elections board could just discount a same-day registrant's ballot upon return of the first undeliverable verification card.

Republican lawmakers have defended their elections legislation as aimed at strengthening the integrity of the voting process in North Carolina.

The law change would "constitute irreparable injury"

In his ruling, Judge Schroeder, nominated to the federal bench in 2007 by President George W. Bush, said the risk of discounting legitimate votes due to poll worker or postal service error outweighed the state's interest in ensuring that only valid votes are counted.

According to State Board of Elections data cited in Schroeder's ruling, in the last four even-year elections, 1,799 out of 100,578; 696 out of 45,666; 2,151 out of 116,326; and 391 out of 34,289 same-day registrants failed address verification.

Schroeder concluded "the threatened injury of discounting an eligible [same-day registration] voter’s ballot without notice and opportunity to be heard would constitute irreparable injury."

Of particular concern to Schroeder, according to his ruling, is the lack of due process for a same-day registrant whose ballot gets challenged.

The law as amended, Schroeder wrote, does not "provide for notice and an opportunity to be heard."

A spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections issued this statement: "The order requires election officials not to remove a same-day registrant’s ballot from the official count if that voter’s registration card is returned as undeliverable prior to the county canvass of votes, without providing that voter notice and an opportunity to be heard."

The statement further said the state elections board is working immediately to put in place such a procedure.

Early in-person voting for this year's primaries starts on Feb. 15. Requested absentee ballots started getting sent out to voters last week.

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