A federal judge has blocked North Carolina laws that greatly restrict who can help people with disabilities request absentee ballots, fill them out, and send them back, and that has experts concerned.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled in favor of Disability Rights North Carolina, which sued the State Board of Elections last September. Boyle stated that the previous state law of only allowing a close relative or legal guardian assist a disabled person to vote by mail conflicts with the federal Voting Rights Act, which allows people who are blind, can’t read or write or have a disability to pick whomever they wish to assist them with voting, other than the voter’s employer or union.

After the ruling, Katelyn Love, attorney for the N.C. State Board of Elections, issued the following guidance to county boards of elections:

“Effective immediately, a disabled absentee voter may receive assistance from any person they choose. They may still request and use a MAT (multipartisan assistance team) team, but they are not required to do so. They may receive assistance from the staff of the hospital, clinic, nursing home, or rest home where they are a patient or resident. They may also receive assistance from an elected official, political party officeholder, or candidate.”

The restrictions in the state law were put in place to protect vulnerable voters from being taken advantage of by facility operators or party activists to vote for certain candidates. The removal, some say, is cause for concern.

“We can expect political parties and interest groups to take advantage of the ruling by either seeking access to assisted living facility patients or recruiting facility managers or employees to gain access to those patients for them,” said Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation.

Jackson cited the 2020 convictions of two ballot traffickers in Hoke County who provided “assistance” to people living in an assisted living facility. The two Hoke County Democrat activists were indicted for harvesting a combined 21 absentee ballots from Hoke County nursing home patients.

Jim Womack, President of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, told Carolina Journal in an emailed statement that while NCEIT is still deliberating the full impact the ruling will have on voting and election integrity, he concurs with Jackson that it will have immediate and important consequences for both registration and voting.

“While this judgment has the appearance of lessening restrictions on disabled voters, it also opens the door for widespread exploitation of vulnerable voters, which is of genuine concern to NCEIT,” Womack said. “Our organization seeks to enable every eligible voter to have equal opportunity to vote, and to ensure every legal vote counts.  Judge Boyle’s ruling compels our NCEIT volunteers to perform special vigilance of facilities that house disabled voters.”

Womack said they definitely want to ensure disabled individuals have equal opportunity to vote, and to receive legitimate assistance in voting, but they must also ensure that these vulnerable voters are not intimidated or exploited by people or organizations without the expressed permission of family members who may have legal or custodial responsibilities for those disabled voters.

Love’s guidance said the state law prohibiting nursing home owners, managers, and workers, elected officials, campaign managers, campaign treasurers, and candidates from assisting absentee voters with completing or returning their ballots who are not disabled and live in hospitals, rest homes, or nursing homes remains in effect.

She said that while it is too late for absentee and MAT materials to be revised for July 26 elections happening in some areas. the state board of election’s website will be updated as soon as possible and urged county boards to update their websites to reflect these changes on who may assist absentee voters.

Jackson said the long-term solution to protect disabled voters is for Congress to make a technical correction to Section 208 in the Voting Rights Act to limit the rights of assisted living facility owners, managers, or employees from assisting voters and that elected officials, political party officeholders, or candidates should also be prohibited from providing such assistance.

In the meantime, he says election officials and others must work together to protect voters from the now-legalized abuses like what happened in Hoke County.