RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The flap over absentee ballots in North Carolina's 2020 election resurfaced Wednesday at the General Assembly as Republicans gave final approval to legislation that would limit Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein's ability to enter future legal settlements.
The bill, now headed to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's desk following a party-line House vote, was introduced by GOP lawmakers angry about being left out of negotiations last year between Stein's office and a labor-affiliated group that sued state election officials. Republican legislative leaders had already intervened to become defendants in the lawsuit.
The enforced settlement, which ultimately was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, increased from three to nine the number of days mailed absentee ballots could be received after Election Day and still count.
To prevent what they call “collusive settlements” in the future, GOP members passed the bill stating legal settlements challenging state law or the constitution must be backed by the Senate leader and House speaker when they are named parties.
The 2020 settlement broke up bipartisan legislation approved to carry out the fall elections during the pandemic that had kept the ballot grace period at three days, GOP Rep. Destin Hall of Caldwell County said.
“This settlement agreement changed the rules of the game in the middle of an election," Hall told colleagues before the 58-47 vote. The legislation, approved by the Senate in the spring, would require backing of legal settlements by legislative leaders for lawsuits on any topic, not just elections. “This (bill) just lets this body be heard."
Cooper’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the measure. However, a veto is likely, especially given that Cooper served as attorney general for 16 years, and because the bill attempts to erode the AG’s powers while representing state agencies in court.
Stein spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed said after the vote that the AG's “office is disappointed by the passage of this bill and we continue to believe that this legislation is unwise and unconstitutional.”
Stein and the state board have bristled at Republican accusations that the legal settlement was contrived to help Democrats. A board leader told lawmakers in March that the panel has the power to settle lawsuits, and that doing so in 2020 prevented more expansive voting changes from occurring.
“This isn't changing rules in the middle of a game. This was a filed lawsuit," Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham County said. She opposed the bill because she said it would interfere with the legal actions of the attorney general: “We should not be changing the system because of one outcome of a settlement legally done by the attorney general that was not (a) political favor.”
The initial September 2020 settlement in the absentee ballot lawsuit also described how ballots lacking full witness information on their envelopes could still be counted without requiring the voter to complete a whole new ballot.
Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and President Donald Trump’s campaign ultimately challenged the settlement. While a federal trial judge’s ruling in October led state board officials to alter their guidance on witness information, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb the nine-day grace period to accept mail-in ballots.