Ken Raymond and David Black suddenly resigned from the North Carolina State Board of Elections late Wednesday claiming they were misled about a proposed settlement of lawsuits over absentee voting rules. It was an abrupt turnaround from the unanimous vote the two members joined just days earlier in a closed session of the elections board.
Now the elections board's remaining three members -- Chairman Damon Circosta, Stella Anderson and Jeff Carmon, all Democrats -- have released privileged records from the closed session that show the two Republicans participated in a lengthy discussion before joining the unanimous vote.
With less than six weeks to go before an election already complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the elections board is facing a raft of lawsuits over absentee voting rules. The board met in closed session on Sept. 15 with staff attorneys and counsel from the state Attorney General's office to discuss the possibility of resolving some of the legal disputes in one comprehensive settlement.
"This outstanding litigation creates uncertainty for voters and election administrators about the election process," said Circosta at an emergency meeting convened Friday. The meeting was called to discuss releasing previously undisclosed, privileged documents from the Sept. 15 session to counter claims by Raymond and Black.
In that closed session, the board's five members unanimously agreed to a settlement offer that would allow absentee voters to cure deficiencies in the witness section of their ballots by affidavit instead of casting an entirely new ballot.
The settlement would also extend the period for counting absentee ballots postmarked by -- but received after -- Election Day.
The minutes from the Sept. 15 meeting show the board members discussed these two issues at length. For example, Ken Raymond, one of the GOP members who stepped down, expressed reservations about extending the counting deadline for absentee ballots cast by civilian voters.
By law, absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day but received up to three days later will be counted. The deadline for mail-in ballots from military and overseas voters, however, is longer. The board discussed offering in the settlement to go by the longer deadline for all absentee voters. At first Raymond held out but ultimately agreed to a provision in the settlement that would extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day from three days later to nine days.
In discussions on the issue of allowing absentee voters to correct problems with the witness section of their ballots, Black, the other GOP member who resigned, was adamant that the witness requirement be preserved. Bipartisan legislation enacted in June reduced the witness requirement from two to one, an acknowledgment that people mostly staying at home because of the coronavirus pandemic mind find it difficult to get two witness signatures versus one.
And, among the thousands of absentee ballots already returned by voters, the most prevalent problem has been incomplete or deficient witness sections. So, in its Sept. 15 session, the board ultimately agreed -- with Black's assent -- to offer in the proposed settlement to allow voters to fix such problems by affidavit.
Soon after the board announced the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by a state judge, North Carolina Republicans attacked it as a partisan ploy by the five-member board's Democratic majority to rig the elections.
"We're witnessing a slow-motion mugging of North Carolina's election integrity," said state Sen. Ralph Hise, the day after the proposed settlement was announced. Hise is a key Republican architect of redistricting maps deemed by a court to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered due to excessive partisanship.
Other Republicans are making a campaign issue of the proposed settlement too -- and, in the process, drawing directly from Pres. Donald Trump's playbook of undermining public confidence in the elections process with no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing, just baseless claims.
Both Lt. Gov. Forest and state Senate leader Phil Berger noted that none of the settlement provisions were contained in bipartisan legislation enacted in June to address absentee voting.
Forest is challenging Gov. Roy Cooper this fall. He and Berger accused state Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat seeking reelection, of colluding with fellow Democrats on the elections board to undermine the integrity of the elections.
“Attorney General Stein now says that this controversy is 'political theater at its most destructive' and he’s right. This scheme strikes at the very heart of our elective process,” Berger said in a statement. “The elimination of absentee ballot fraud protections in the Democrats’ corrupt, collusive settlement is part of a long-term effort already rejected by a near-unanimous legislature, a federal judge and a three-judge state court panel. Why did the Democrats concoct this performance in secret?”
Forest called on U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a Trump acolyte, to investigate.
But state elections board chairman Damon Circosta disputed the GOP attacks.
"Any assertion that a member was misled or not fully apprised of the issues at hand is incorrect," he stated during Friday's meeting.
Neither Ken Raymond nor David Black has responded to WUNC's request for comment.
The timing of their resignations -- late Wednesday night, hours after Senator Hise's denunciation of the elections board's proposed legal settlement -- seem to suggest Black and Raymond may have come under pressure from the state GOP establishment to reverse their positions.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, tied in a tight reelection battle against Democrat Cal Cunningham, has also sought to benefit politically from the elections board issue. In two debates, Tillis had expressed confidence in the absentee voting process in North Carolina. But on Thursday, Tillis told a conservative radio host in Greenville that after the elections board approval of the proposed legal settlement he now has "grave concerns."
That same host, while interviewing Tillis, stated that voters would be able to submit absentee ballots by drop-box, which is categorically untrue. The documents from the elections board's Sept. 15 meeting show the members -- all five, including the two GOP members--agreed unmanned drop boxes would not be allowed.