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Follow the latest news and information about voting and the 2020 election, including essential information about how to vote during a pandemic and more.

Federal Judge Rebukes NC Elections Board Over Mail Ballot Plan

Tiffany Tertipes

The North Carolina State Board of Elections this week said that county elections boards should send voters a “cure affidavit” if there are problems with their absentee mail ballots, such as a missing witness signature.

But a federal judge Wednesday said that plan isn’t consistent with his previous order on mail voting, giving Republicans a victory with the general election a little more than a month away.

Judge William Osteen ruled this summer that the Board of Elections must give voters an opportunity to correct problems with their absentee mail ballots. At the time, local elections boards interpreted that as meaning they would spoil a mail ballot – and then immediately send the voter a new one.

But the North Carolina State Board of Elections went further. It said the voters would be allowed to sign a “cure affidavit.” The voter would sign a document saying the ballot was theirs and legitimate even if the original ballot didn’t have a witness signature.

State Republicans said the Democratic-controlled State Board of Elections had essentially scrapped state law that requires absentee mail ballots have one witness signature. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said Democrats were changing the rules of the election after voting had already started.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the General Assembly this summer reduced the number of witness signatures needed from two to one. The vote was bipartisan, with Democrats agreeing that one witness signature would still be needed.

Osteen on Wednesday agreed.

He wrote that the elections board’s guidance may be “reasonably interpreted to eliminate the one-witness requirement under the guise of compliance with this court’s order.” He ordered a status conference for all parties in a lawsuit.

Osteen also cited previous testimony from the executive director of the State Board of Elections, Karen Brinson Bell. She had previously said that the only way for voters to "cure" a mail ballot lacking a witness signature was to contact the voter and send them a new ballot.

Osteen then wrote that "it appears ... (the defendants) have rewritten the one-witness requirement, a statute this court previously upheld, to permit submission of an absentee ballot without a witness."

The ruling comes as tens of thousands of North Carolinians have already voted absentee by mail – and after elections boards began processing mail ballots Tuesday.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.