News: Quick Takes

Election board’s absentee ballot settlement upheld, legislature to appeal

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, at a May 2018 news conference. (CJ Photo by Don Carrington)
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, at a May 2018 news conference. (CJ Photo by Don Carrington)

Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins signed off on a deal letting the State Board of Elections rewrite several parts of a state election law dealing with absentee ballots in the current election cycle.

Collins ruled from the bench on Friday, Oct. 2. He’s expected to issue a written order soon. Leaders of the General Assembly, who are defendant-intervenors in the case, plan an immediate appeal.

The settlement agreement in N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans vs. NCSBE is one of a raft of lawsuits brought by Democratic legal heavyweight Marc Elias against the state. Republicans say the litigation is intended to undermine the integrity of the election, in which more than 300,000 absentee ballots already have been cast. The Alliance is a group affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor union.

In the settlement, the board of elections agreed to revise several parts of House Bill 1169, a bill meant to make voting easier during the COVID-19 pandemic without compromising election security. It passed by supermajorities in both the state House and Senate and was signed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Three big changes: Absentee ballots could be deposited in unmanned drop boxes and wouldn’t have to be recorded at local elections boards; they would count if received as late as nine days after the election, rather than the three day limit in H.B. 1169; and ballots lacking a witness signature could be “cured” or counted if the voter simply informs election officials that he cast a ballot.

State lawmakers called the deal a “collusive settlement” and said it undermined the legislature’s authority under the U.S. Constitution to set election law and regulations.

“Judge Collins, who issued a ruling last year trying to deem the entire legislature a ‘usurper body,’ unsurprisingly sided with unelected Democrats in their effort to rewrite election law while voting is already underway,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a news release.

In Collins’ “usurper” ruling, he tried to throw out voter-passed amendments to the state constitution reducing the top state income tax rate and requiring voter ID at the polls, claiming the General Assembly members who put the amendments on the ballot were elected from unconstitutional districts. A 2-1 Court of Appeals majority reversed the ruling.

 “Collins’ lawless ruling last year was overturned unanimously on appeal, and we expect the same result this time,” the senator said.

 “We will not stop fighting to uphold the law, which a bipartisan supermajority enacted earlier this year, that protects against absentee ballot fraud.”

 In a separate statement, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said, “We strongly disagree with this decision and will continue to use every legal avenue available to ensure voter confidence in this election by defending North Carolina law against this collusive settlement.”