A federal judge halted new North Carolina absentee voting rules on Friday that would have extended ballot deadlines and loosened witness requirements.
The new rules came about as part of a settlement made by a state judge that would allow ballots to arrive nine days past election day if post-marked on or before election day. Additionally, the settlement effectively eliminated the witness requirement and replaced it with an affidavit system.
The court decided to halt the rules over concerns for those who have already cast a ballot in North Carolina:
By September 22, 2020, over 150,000 North Carolina voters—including plaintiffs Heath and Whitley in this case, and plaintiff Wise in Wise—had cast absentee ballots under the statutory scheme and the August2020-19 memo. On October 2, 2020, however, after the election started and 319,209 North Carolina voters had cast absentee ballots, the NCSBOE materially changed the rules under which the election was taking place. Specifically, the September 2020-19 memo, Numbered Memo 2020-22, and Numbered Memo 2020-23 eliminated the statutory witness requirement, change the statutory dates and method by which absentee ballots are accepted, and change the statutory scheme as to who can deliver absentee ballots. At bottom, the NCSBOE has ignored the statutory scheme and arbitrarily created multiple, disparate regimes under which North Carolina voters cast absentee ballots, and plaintiff voters in this case and in Wise are likely to succeed on their claims under the Equal Protection Clause. The NCSBOE inequitably and materially upset the electoral status quo in the middle of an election by issuing the memoranda and giving the memoranda legal effect via the October 2, 2020 consent judgment The court issues this temporary restraining order to maintain the status quo. Additionally, the constitutional harm of which plaintiff voters complain would be irreparable absent a temporary restraining order in this case and Wise. The public has a distinct interest in ensuring that plaintiffs’ voting rights under the Constitution are secure. The memoranda, by materially changing the electoral process in the middle of an election after over 300,000 people have voted, undermines that confidence and creates confusion for those North Carolinians who have yet to cast their absentee ballots. (Citations omitted).
The court’s ruling reverts North Carolina absentee voting rules to those established by the Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020. The act requires that the ballot be signed by a witness, that the ballot be post-marked on or before election day, and that the ballot arrive at the elections office no later than three days after the election.
Other states have faced similar difficulties over deadlines and witness requirements for the 2020 election. Wisconsin has extended its mail-in ballot acceptance deadline to three days after the election, and Michigan extended its mail-in ballot acceptance deadline to 14 days after the election. Rhode Island has required two witnesses to be present for the signing of an absentee ballot.
Judge Dever, who presided over the North Carolina ruling, transferred the case to another federal court for further determinations.