Fact Check: Gov. Cooper claims valid votes could be rejected under Republican-backed pilot program
It's time for a fact-check of North Carolina politics. This week, we're looking at a claim made by Gov. Roy Cooper about a Republican-backed elections bill he vetoed, which the GOP supermajority is expected to override.
Cooper said about the legislation: "it requires valid votes to be tossed out if the post office delivers them even one minute after 7.30 p.m. on Election Day, or if a computer rejects a signature."
We turn now to Paul Specht, of WRAL, for more.
Marshall Terry: So what is this legislation, and what does it do?
Paul Specht: Yes, so it's an election bill that sort of targets absentee voting. And on the Republican side there's been a lot of mistrust of absentee voting since 2020 because some states end up counting those ballots for several days after Election Day, including here in North Carolina. And so this particular bill would do away with North Carolina's three-day grace period. So it would require that all mail-in absentee ballots make it to the elections board office by 7:30 (p.m.) on Election Day.
That's one component, but that's not what we're fact-checking here. There's something else in the bill that would create a pilot program in 10 counties that would install a new signature verification software to check the authenticity of signatures on absentee ballots.
Terry: And what's the current system in place for absentee ballots in North Carolina?
Specht: Currently in North Carolina, if you want to vote by mail you need to request a mail-in ballot. And to do that you go online and sign up for one. And when you do that, you're required to provide a signature. You even have to use your finger or a stylus, or something like that, to sign it.
And then it gets mailed to you, and you fill out the ballot. And then you put it in an envelope, and you sign the back. And in North Carolina, you also need two witnesses — or just one notary public — to witness that it was you, in fact, who filled out the ballot, not some other person committing fraud, potentially, right?
When it gets sent back, the elections boards, they look at these ballots. And they look to make sure that the voter's signature matches the name of the voter who requested the absentee ballot. And if things look good, then the ballot is accepted.
For years now, Republicans have said, that's not good enough. We want to make sure that these signatures are not being forged by anyone. And so they want to install some sort of signature verification program that can check absentee ballot signatures with signatures they already have on file.
Under this scenario, you would mail your absentee ballot back, they would look at the signature, and then use some sort of program that hasn't been determined yet to check and see — you know, in my name, does the P and the S, you know, my initials — do they look the same way? Is the font similar? Is there something fishy going on? That's what they would do in a pilot program for the primaries next year in 10 counties. And those counties haven't been decided yet. They'd be decided by the state board.
Terry: Now do Republican lawmakers want to implement a system for signature verification statewide eventually?
Specht: Well, Gov. Cooper's office, when we asked them about this claim, they pointed to part of the bill that instructs the state Board of Election officials to sort of investigate what the cost would be to implement a program like this statewide, beyond just the 10 counties that would do the pilot program and to track how many ballots are flagged — whether or not they were appropriately flagged, and other things that just sort of mark whether or not the pilot program is effective.
And then the election officials are supposed to report back to the legislators at the General Assembly on how the program went. And then it even tells them to offer recommendations for how a similar program could be done statewide.
Terry: So going back to Gov. Cooper and his claim, how did you rate his claim?
Specht: We rated it false. Just to be sure that we weren't missing anything in this bill — because Cooper's statement was so forceful and said your ballot could be thrown out if a computer rejects a signature — we looked through the bill. We didn't see anything.
And then (North Carolina) House Speaker Tim Moore — he's Republican — his office told us in order to implement a statewide signature verification program for the general election next year, they would actually have to pass a new bill. And we asked Cooper's office, 'Is that true?' And they agreed. They said yes.
So let's review. The bill specifically says that no ballot that's flagged as part of the pilot program can be thrown out because it was flagged. And then the speaker's office — a Republican — and the governor's office — a Democrat — agree that different legislation would need to be passed for a statewide program to be installed. That leaves us, frankly, with no other option but to rate this false.