Judge Weighing North Carolina Absentee Ballot Procedures

Oct 7, 2020

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

A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments over whether North Carolina is providing voters sufficient opportunity to fix absentee ballots that arrive without full information on who witnessed it.

U.S. District Judge William Osteen is holding a hearing on Wednesday afternoon concerning a trio of lawsuits filed over how the state handles absentee ballots. A key issue is the requirement in state law that people who cast absentee ballots have it witnessed by another adult.

In a bunch of lawsuits, plaintiffs sued the State Board of Elections to ease absentee ballot rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many lawsuits sought to eliminate the absentee ballot witness requirement.

Late last month, the State Board of Elections had agreed to allow voters to fix problems with incomplete witness info by sending in an affidavit and not starting a new ballot from scratch and having it witnessed again. But state Republican lawmakers sued to temporarily block the settlement offer and claim it's an attempt by the board's Democratic majority to rig the elections.

A different federal judge sent two cases brought by GOP leaders to Osteen.

Osteen was already presiding over a separate case brought by voting rights activists who argued that the state's absentee ballot rules were too restrictive for voters coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

In August, Osteen asked the state to ensure voters have a fair process to fix errors on their ballots. But he said in court papers last week that he has concerns that the process put in place by the state would essentially eliminate the one-witness requirement.

County elections officials await further guidance on fixing deficient ballots.