NC elections board, Republicans spar over absentee changes

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's currently Democratic-only elections board exchanged public jabs with state Republican heavyweights on Friday over the efficacy and legality of a brokered agreement intended to ease some absentee ballot rules for the November election.

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The State Board of Elections this week altered some guidance to county boards related to mail-in ballots as demand for the ballots has soared because of the coronavirus pandemic. Over 1 million ballots have been requested so far amid health concerns about in-person voting, a number exponentially higher than the last presidential election year.

The guidance also was contained in a joint settlement proposal the board entered with a union-affiliated group that had sued the elections board to seek more dramatic voting changes this year due to COVID-19.

Tuesday's settlement angered GOP politicians, who accused the board of colluding with the Democratic-backed litigants as well as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein to weaken election security laws in the closely divided state. Even President Donald Trump's campaign chimed in with opposition.

A key change means absentee voters who don’t provide complete information on their envelope about the witness who saw them fill out the ballot won’t have to complete a new ballot and locate another witness. A voter will just have to turn in an affidavit confirming they filled out the original ballot. A judge will hold a hearing next week about whether he’ll accept the settlement.

The full five-member board — three Democrats and two Republicans — held private discussions recently about how to reach settlements in several pending voting lawsuits weeks before Election Day. They voted unanimously to move ahead with a settlement covering three areas.

But the two Republican board members, Ken Raymond and David Black, resigned late Wednesday, saying in departure letters they weren’t given full information about the settlement.

Board Chair Damon Circosta said Black and Raymond made “unsupported claims” about what happened at the meeting and “any assertion that a member was misled or not fully apprised of the issues at hand is incorrect.”

The guidance also says absentee ballots will now be accepted by county election boards through Nov. 12, rather than Nov. 6, if postmarked or turned in by Election Day. And county boards will make it easier for people to turn in absentee ballots at early in-person voting sites.

To bolster its claim, the board, now reduced to the three Democrats, agreed Friday to release the minutes from the nearly three-hour closed-door session and a document from the attorney general's office's lawyers who helped advise the board.

The meeting minutes describe a robust discussion among all five board members and lawyers for the state and the board. Members weighed their willingness to alter election rules being challenged in court to avoid conflicting court rulings from judges and to bring stability.

Raymond did express opposition to extending the absentee ballot acceptance date and to weakening the witness requirement, the minutes say, but he and Black did vote for settlement parameters in a motion from Circosta. But even a Democratic member was concerned a settlement could go too far.

“If we say that the voter can cure no witness signature, we are exempting them from the witness requirement,'' the minutes read, describing member Stella Anderson's comments. “This is problematic.”

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, who also are defendants in the lawsuit but weren't alerted to the agreement, said Friday the minutes reinforce their case of an end-around by Democrats. They've said the guidance guts a witness mandate and could facilitate absentee ballot fraud like what was uncovered during the 2018 9th Congressional District race.

“This is a direct attack on the rule of law and it must be stopped,” U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, who now represents the 9th District after a new election was ordered for 2019, said at a news conference with Berger and Moore. Bishop didn't run in 2018.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ordered the board in another lawsuit to allow visually impaired people to cast their votes electronically from home because of the health threats posed by COVID-19 this year.

The state already uses an electronic portal for overseas citizens or military members to vote by fax or email. The board had acknowledged in court that current voting access doesn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but contended it's too late to set up the portal for visually impaired residents in time for the election.