This story will be updated regularly.
Fewer than six weeks from the 2020 general election, two of the five members of the State Board of Elections walked off the job. Republicans are disgusted. They say they were misled by information from the board. Its staff. State Attorney General Josh Stein. Together, the Democratic majority handled a proposed settlement in a lawsuit over absentee ballots.
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.
The Republican-led General Assembly was shut out of settlement negotiations, even though its leaders were defendants-intervenors in the case.
Republican leaders have accused Democrats Stein, Gov. Roy Cooper, and the state elections board of colluding with Elias to change election law, even as the election is underway. More than a million voters have requested absentee ballots. More than 200,000 of them have been cast.
Here’s a quick review:
- Citing Osteen’s order, the state elections board issues a memo ordering county elections boards to hold all ballots lacking witness signatures. Osteen has scheduled a hearing Wednesday, Oct. 7, in the federal courthouse in Greensboro.
- U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen ruled against the State Board of Elections in a separate absentee-ballot lawsuit, Democracy NC v. NCSBE. The plaintiffs wanted to gut many of the ball0t-fraud protections in House Bill 1189. Osteen rejected their proposals, but said the board had to come up with a plan to let voters who made mistakes on absentee ballots fix them. The board last week sent Osteen part of the settlement plan they offered in the N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans lawsuit, featuring the move to eliminate the requirement that absentee ballots include a witness signature. Osteen rejected it. “The procedure undermines and in effect eliminates the Legislature’s interest in preventing ballot fraud,” Osteen wrote.
- Republican chairs of the Senate Elections Committee filed a public-records request for all contacts between Stein, his staff, Democratic Party operatives, the elections board and staff, candidates for office, Elias and his staff, and anyone “discussing extending the return deadline for postmarked absentee ballots, the absentee ballot requirement, or whether it should be placed in an unmanned drop box.”
- In an emailed statement for the elections board, spokesman Patrick Gannon noted county elections boards had begun processing absentee ballots. “With only 35 days left before Election Day, the State Board of Elections and all 100 county boards remain focused on ensuring all eligible voters can successfully cast their ballot by mail or in-person without fear of coronavirus.”
- Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, issued a statement calling the elections board hypocrites. In a federal lawsuit filed by a group of blind voters requesting easier access to absentee ballots, the board asked not to change its rules. It told the court Sept. 8, “modify[ing] their absentee ballot program … this close to Election Day would be unduly burdensome.” U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle rejected the elections board’s request and ordered it to make accommodations for the blind voters. Berger asked why the board said it was too late to change their ballot rules on Sept. 8, but it was fine to do so a week later.
- Republican leaders in the General Assembly and the Republican National Committee/Trump campaign filed separate lawsuits in federal court claiming the elections board acted illegally when it tried to change the rules on absentee ballots after the election began. Both lawsuits cited Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which says only the legislature — not an appointed board or any other body — can set the “time, place, and manner” of elections. They also charged the elections board with violating the civil rights of voters who cast their absentee ballots before the settlement with the N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans was announced. The Trump/RNC lawsuit also alleged the settlement violated the “one person, one vote” principle under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
- Minutes of a closed-door meeting show the State Board of Elections rejected unmanned absentee ballot drop boxes and wanted to keep the state’s absentee ballot witness requirement, according to a news release from the Senate leader’s office. Yet drop boxes and the gutting of the witness requirement were included in the proposed settlement submitted to a Wake County Superior Court judge. “It is beyond troubling that this collusive settlement completely disregarded clear directions from the State Board of Elections. The members of the board spoke out about the necessity of the witness requirement, but the collusive settlement effectively eliminates it,” Senate leader Berger said in the release. “Instead of increasing election security in the shadow of election fraud from 2018, Democrats led by [the] Attorney General’s office and national Democrats’ go-to attorney, Marc Elias, took it upon themselves to rewrite and ignore state law in an attempt to game the elections system.”
- Lt. Gov. Dan Forest says he sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr requesting an investigation into how Stein and the state elections board negotiated the settlement. “The fact that an executive agency would dare enter into an agreement that attempts to make substantial changes to our election law less than six weeks before the election raises serious concerns about the motives of all involved,” Forest said in the letter.
- If a judge approves the settlement, legislative leaders will almost certainly file an appeal, Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Berger, told Carolina Journal.
- Twitter temporarily restricted the account of Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, after the House election committee chair tweeted that Cooper and Stein are colluding with “DC Democrats to undermine election laws the General Assembly recently passed in a bipartisan manner.”
- The NCSBE’s only Republican members resigned in protest over the handling of the settlement. Ken Raymond and David Black said they were misled into believing the board had to settle the lawsuit over absentee ballot procedures instead of going to court. In his resignation letter, Black said it was his understanding a witness signature would still be required. The settlement allows for a workaround to the witness requirement. Stein’s office didn’t advise the board that a lot of the concessions made in the settlement have been denied by courts, Raymond wrote in his letter. “It is impossible to have true bipartisanship when both sides of the political aisle do not have the important and vital information needed to make the right decisions,” Raymond wrote. The board’s legal staff provided legal memos prior to every board meeting and answered any board members’ questions, Pat Gannon, the NCSBE spokesman, said in a news release.
- In a blog post, Andy Jackson, elections policy analyst at the Civitas Institute, writes Thursday, Sept. 24, it could be that “Black and Raymond have offered the first two of what will be a string of resignations.”
- The elections board announced a settlement was reached in the N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans’ lawsuit over changes to absentee ballot procedure. If approved by a judge, the settlement would allow a voter who fails to include either their signature or a witness signature to fix the mistake by attesting that they voted. In essence, an absentee ballot could be counted without a witness signature. Election law requires one witness to affirm the voter’s identity. The settlement also would allow absentee ballots to be accepted nine days after the election so long as they’re postmarked on or before election day.
- The N.C. Alliance for Retired Americans, a union-backed group, filed a lawsuit challenging absentee voting processes adopted to respond to COVID-19. The plaintiffs wanted the state to extend early voting hours, put prepaid postage on absentee ballot envelopes, extend the deadline to accept absentee ballots postmarked by election day, and loosen the witness requirement.
- Cooper signs House Bill 1169, or the Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020, into law. Under H.B. 1169, only one witness — instead of two — needs to affirm a voter’s identity. Additionally, the law gives more time for county elections boards to approve absentee ballot applications. It requires a barcode on those applications to track the ballot. Lawmakers agreed to appropriate more than $4 million to the state elections board to respond to COVID-19. The bill passed 105-14 in the House and 37-12 in the Senate.
Reporting by Lindsay Marchello and Rick Henderson.