Judge rejects most N.C. election changes sought in lawsuit

FILE - In this March 10, 2020, file photo, King County Election workers collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State presidential primary in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

RALEIGH — A federal judge on Tuesday refused to order a wide array of changes to North Carolina’s election rules sought by voting advocacy groups worried about how COVID-19 could limit ballot access. But he told election officials they can’t reject mail-in absentee ballots unless there’s a way that voters can fix errors.

U.S. District Judge William Osteen said people turning in an absentee ballot should be told why it won’t otherwise count and be given a chance to address the problem.

Democracy North Carolina and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, two plaintiffs in the case, presented evidence to Osteen showing about 5% of absentee mail-in ballots were rejected in the March primary. The number of requests for absentee ballots for the November election are currently several times above the request level four years ago.

The State Board of Elections is assembling an absentee voting guide that will lay out a procedure by which voters can correct problems. Osteen suggested such errors could include a lack of information about a person witnessing the absentee ballot or questions about a voter’s signature.

“An injunction against the rejection of any absentee ballots until such time as defendants implement a plan or procedure to address material defects will suffice,” Osteen wrote in granting a partial preliminary injunction at the close of a 188-page order.

Most of the demands by the plaintiffs, which include four voters, were denied.

They wanted the elimination of uniform early-voting hours, the traditional voter registration deadline 25 days before Election Day and the witness requirement. They also wanted a method for people to request absentee ballots by phone and to leave completed ballots in “no-contact” boxes. Osteen wrote he rejected the requests because the plaintiffs were unlikely to win their arguments on these matters at trial.

The General Assembly approved a law in June that attempts in part to make it easier to request mail-in absentee ballots, including turning in request forms online. There’s also money in the law for personal protective equipment at in-person voting locations.

Osteen warned that his denials should not be misunderstood so as to discount “genuine issues of concern” about the November election.

The election “is going to be a test of the North Carolina government’s thoughtfulness, adaptability and responsiveness to a rapidly changing environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Osteen wrote.

Osteen did block some rules about voting in nursing homes involving a 91-year-old plaintiff who is blind and lives in a nursing home that currrently prohibits visitors. To discourage fraud, state law otherwise restricts those who can assist nursing home residents in casting votes. It wasn’t immediately clear late Tuesday the extent of the ruling to other nursing home residents.