Fact Check: NC Elections Chief’s Claim That Board Did Not Change State Law ‘Mostly False’
During a North Carolina House committee meeting last month, elections Director Karen Brinson Bell told lawmakers the State Board of Elections did not change the law when it amended absentee ballot rules during the 2020 election. The changes led to controversy and legal challenges. WRAL’s Paul Specht joins us to assess Brinson Bell's claims.
Marshall Terry: First, Paul, remind us: What specific changes did the board make regarding absentee ballot rules?
Paul Specht: The first deals with how long ballots are allowed to be in the mail. Under state law, mail-in absentee ballots cannot be accepted more than three days after Election Day. The rules changed on that one so that they would be accepted up to nine days after Election Day. And then the other dealt with witness signatures. In North Carolina, historically, you have to have a witness — or two — sign your absentee ballot before you mail it in.
That is in general statutes, too, and by that, I mean lawmakers have passed a law requiring a witness signature. That changed for the 2020 election, too, through a settlement that the elections board agreed to. They said voters who mailed an absentee ballot without a signature could fill out an affidavit to verify that their ballot was legitimate.
Terry: And why did the board make these changes?
Specht: They were sued. Last year, obviously, we're in the midst of a global pandemic, and some advocacy groups — Democracy North Carolina, the Alliance for Retired Americans — sued the elections board to try to loosen rules to try to reduce the risk of COVID spread during the election.
Terry: Can you give us a little context around Brinson Bell's claim last month? Why was she speaking before the legislative committee?
Specht: She was speaking before the committee because there's been a delay in efforts to gather census information ... so, that process is continuing into 2021, and it may affect how elections are done in North Carolina. So, she was appearing before this committee at the Capitol to say, "Hey, we have some recommendations for the 2021 municipal elections, and just here's an update on what we think might need to happen."
Terry: Was she right when she said the board did not change state law regarding the absentee ballot rules last year?
Specht: No, she is not right. The elections board, through that settlement, agreed to change those laws. Now, the board will argue that it has the power to change laws and, in that way, they didn't break a law. And we're not arguing that here. We're saying they entered into an agreement where they changed the laws for the 2020 election. I think that's pretty indisputable considering those two absentee ballot rules we mentioned had been passed by legislatures and put on the books.
Specht: You reached out to some legal experts about this. What do they say?
Specht: They saw it the same way. There is an argument to be made that under North Carolina laws, the board has flexibility to change voting rules. And the board told me, they said, "We think this is more like extending voting hours when there's a delay." And we hear about that a lot during election time — we hear about a polling site that its machine breaks down, and so they have to extend the amount of time that voters are allowed to be there. That's sort of routine.
But experts we spoke with said they're downplaying the issue here. Rather than making a judgment call on whether or not a polling site needs more hours for the people who are in line is much different than deviating from absentee ballot rules that were actually put in the general statutes.
Terry: Does the elections board even have the power to change state law in North Carolina?
Specht: That's a good question. That's an argument that the board makes. It did go all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene. That may not necessarily mean that they are blessing this settlement or its contents or whatever. They declined to intervene, and the settlement went forward.
Terry: How did you rate this claim by Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell?
Specht: We rated it mostly false. We didn't see any way to avoid the fact that there were laws on the books and then they were changed through a settlement. And it is important to note that those changed just for the 2020 election. I mean, that's part of the reason this is mostly false and not a full-on, full-blown false, and that's because these changes were temporary.
Terry: All right, Paul, thank you.
Specht: Thank you for having me.