The N.C. State Board of Elections voted along party lines at their board meeting Thursday to reject a request from the NCGOP to have county boards of elections compare absentee ballot signatures with those that they have on file.

This is the second time this week that the legitimacy of votes in future elections has come into play. On Monday, a federal judge 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.

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 in voting 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.

The NCGOP had requested a “declaratory ruling” for county boards of elections to match signatures on an absentee ballot, request form, or an absentee ballot envelope. Republicans say doing so would greatly reduce the potential for voter fraud.

Republican board member Stacy “Four” Eggers made a motion that the state election board could issue a declaratory ruling that the county boards would have the authority under the general statutes to compare signatures on absentee ballot requests or return envelopes.

He said that while not every single absentee ballot has to be compared, “the presence of a signature on the registration card is an easy and accessible tool that the counties have,” Eggers said. “Having that for their additional consideration for absentee ballot requests builds trust in the system.”

Democratic board member Stella Anderson said she couldn’t support such a motion “To do so would potentially impose additional requirements beyond the statutory requirements,” she said.

Republican board member Tommy Tucker refuted Anderson’s comments about putting more requirements on the voters by saying the statutes already require a signature of the voter on an absentee ballot.

“The lack of accountability through the absentee ballot process lends itself to the opportunity to cheat,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t mean all absentee ballots will be scrutinized, but the ones that look fraudulent and suspect just like we looked at the petitions for the Green Party.  The process is the same. So, we are doing for one but not the other?”

Board Chairman Damon Circosta, a Democrat, said he was very satisfied with the current process but was concerned with the motion because “rather than get more surgical and precise about making sure those absentee ballots are authentic, we put too much play in the wheel,” he said.

Eggers said he saw the motion as a way to speed up the process and not unnecessarily tie up investigators and legal counsel.

The board voted 3-2 against the motion. Democrat board member Jeff Carmon made the opposite motion that county boards lack authority under the general statutes to compare signatures on absentee ballot requests or return envelopes.

“The 3-2 decision was expected,” said Dr. Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. “Roy Cooper’s State Board of Elections has a history of making the minimum election security rules required by law. The board should at least have required the same level of scrutiny of signatures on absentee ballots that they applied to the Green Party petitions they recently voted not to certify.”

Jackson said this may be an issue the General Assembly will have to take up in the 2023 legislative session.

“The Supreme Court will have a ruling at the end of the year where we won’t have any say, and the ruling will be by the constitution, and the times, manner, and places of elections are determined by the state legislature, not the state board, not the Supreme Court, and not an illegitimate judge,” Tucker said. “If you folks don’t want to verify and make it as trustworthy as we can for the public to think we are doing a good job with our elections, and that is your position not to verify signatures, so be it.”

The board voted 3-2 in favor of Carmon’s motion.

“We are stunned that the Democrats on the State Board of Elections are blocking the use of signature verification on absentee ballots,” said Michael Whatley, chairman of the N.C. Republican Party in a press release. “This misguided decision is a direct contradiction of state law, which is clear that County Boards of Elections are required to validate the identity of absentee voters. The North Carolina Republican Party will explore every option at our disposal to restore voter signature verification as an essential component of our County Boards’ efforts to protect the integrity of North Carolina elections.”

The NCGOP said it is awaiting the written order from the N.C. State Board of Elections, at which point further legal options, including appeal, will be considered.

This story was updated on July 15 at 10 am.