News: CJ Exclusives

Election lawsuit settlement threatens absentee ballot protections 

Karen Brinson Bell, left, attends her first meeting as executive director of the State Board of Elections in June 2019. (CJ file photo)
Karen Brinson Bell, left, attends her first meeting as executive director of the State Board of Elections in June 2019. (CJ file photo)

A settlement in an election lawsuit strips absentee ballot protections, opening the door for election fraud, one election expert says. 

Parties in the North Carolina Alliance of Retired Americans v. North Carolina State Board of Elections filed a joint motion calling on a judge to approve a settlement in the case. The lawsuit, led by Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, challenged a series of changes lawmakers made to the absentee ballot process in June. 

But the settlement included only Democrats and the Democrat-majority elections board, shutting out the Republican-led General Assembly, which crafted the bipartisan elections law.

The election is underway. Thousands of absentee ballots have already been mailed. 

The settlement changes the game after it has begun, said Andy Jackson, election policy analyst at Civitas Institute, a conservative public policy organization. 

Here’s what the settlement would do: 

  • Extend the deadline for local election boards to receive mailed absentee ballots.
  • Allow an absentee ballot to be counted if it’s either a) received by the county board by 5 p.m. on election day, Nov. 3; or b) the ballot is postmarked on or before election day and received by nine days after the election.
  • Direct the state election board to create a process to resolve errors on absentee ballots that could be fixed with an affidavit from the voter. Examples include a mailed absentee ballot lacking a voter signature or a witness signature. The affidavit must be returned by no later than 5 p.m. Nov. 12, the day before counties canvass.
  • Allow people who return ballots in person to verbally give information to election workers instead of writing in a log. 
  • Create a process for establishing a separate absentee ballot drop-off station at each one-stop early voting location and at the county board offices. 

The settlement functionally does away with the witness requirement, Jackson said, opening the door for election fraud. 

Getting rid of the witness requirement was on N.C. Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell’s wishlist. 

In March, Bell sent a list of legislative requests to the General Assembly, which included reducing or removing the witness requirement to absentee ballots. The General Assembly agreed to some of the requests, wrapping them up in House Bill 1169, but ultimately failed to remove the witness requirement. 

Under H.B. 1169, only one witness — instead of two — needs to attest to a voter’s identity. Additionally, the law gives more time for county election boards to approve absentee ballot applications. It requires a barcode on those applications to track the ballot. 

In August, the N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans sued over the changes to the absentee ballot procedures. The lawsuit called for changes to election law much like those Bell sought earlier this year. 

In a closed-door meeting last week, the state elections board voted to allow Bell and her staff to negotiate settlements in election lawsuits. The vote was unanimous, with the board’s two Republican members joining the three-Democrat majority. At least eight other election lawsuits are pending. 

Prepare to see more settlement shake-ups in the next few weeks, Jackson said. 

Republican leaders are livid. 

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, are intervenor-defendants in the lawsuit, but they said they weren’t consulted in the settlement negotiations. 

This settlement is a full-frontal assault on election integrity, Berger says in a news release

Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, the House elections committee chair, accused the State Board of Elections of colluding with Elias to “wildly change election law in North Carolina.” 

“Just like they did with Voter ID, [Gov.] Roy Cooper and [Attorney General] Josh Stein are undermining the will of the people and the integrity of elections by using so-called settlements with left wing legal activists,” Hall said in a news release. 

A judge still needs to sign off on the agreement. Judge Bryan Collins, who referred to the Republican-led General Assembly as “usurpers” in a lawsuit challenging voter-approved constitutional amendments, is tasked with reviewing the motion.

The court has set an Oct. 2 hearing date, WRAL reported. 

The General Assembly is considering next steps, Moore says in a news release.