It’s been about a month since the “NC Board of Elections Mess” (as Spectrum News 1 recently put it) started making local — and even national — headlines. Between the board of elections, settlements, resignations, and more, it was easy to get lost in the “mess.”
At this point, it’s fair to ask: Is it really a mess? What do I need to know? The answers to those questions are obviously subjective. But, as the mess in NC continues, North Carolinians can take some solace in knowing they’re not the only ones facing political confusion.
How Did the “NC Board of Elections Mess” Start?
Back in August, the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans sued the state and the NC Board of Elections. In their suit, the group sought to eliminate the witness requirement for mail-in ballots, extend the deadline for mail-in ballots and create a way for mail-in voters to fix any issues with their ballots.
To try to resolve the lawsuit, the Board of Elections met privately with NC Department of Justice lawyers in September. As a result of the meeting, the five-member Board of Elections unanimously agreed to let the board’s executive director and attorneys settle the lawsuit.
There was, however, a catch — or more accurately, three catches — to that unanimous agreement. First, they required election officials to count all mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, if the ballots were received by Nov. 12. Second, they required that all ballot drop boxes be manned.
The third and final requirement was that the witness and assistant requirements remain in place. While that portion of the requirement wasn’t controversial by itself, it was the next part of the third requirement that drew ire: Voters would also be afforded an opportunity to cure any problems with their ballot.
The Board of Elections’ settlement complied with all three requirements, but controversy arose over the third one.
When the Board of Elections settled the lawsuit, one of its agreed-to terms focused on the state’s witness requirement for mail-in ballots. Although the requirement generally stayed in place, the settlement allowed voters who fail to correctly submit their ballot a chance to remedy the error without a witness.
“The State Board will allow a voter whose witness does not fill out required fields on the envelope to correct that mistake through an affidavit of the voter,” the Board of Elections announced in their news release.
In more simple terms, this change is somewhat unremarkable. If the voter, their witness or their assistant made a mistake on their mail-in ballot, they can fix the mistake with an affidavit rather that a new ballot. That’s it. That’s the change.
Yet that change was met with alarm and outrage by some NC lawmakers and political groups. The change’s critics, largely Republican leaders, claim that this change essentially eliminates the witness requirement.
This is because mail-in voters could theoretically avoid it by mailing in an incomplete ballot. Then, instead of having someone witness their ballot, they could then go to the county board of elections and sign an affidavit under oath swearing to the accuracy of their ballot. If that sounds more complicated than having a witness there the first time around, that’s probably because it is.
So What Caused the “Mess” We’re Hearing About?
While the settlement may not have been perfect, some viewed it as relatively unremarkable during a global pandemic. Then the “NC Board of Elections Mess” got messy for the first time.
The Republican backlash to the settlement is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. The two Republican members of the Board of Elections resigned shortly thereafter, expressing frustration with the settlement they agreed to. Both seemed to take the view that, while they agreed to the settlement, they didn’t actually understand what they agreed to or its impact.
Other reporting suggests, however, that their resignations only came after the state’s Republican party expressed their frustration. According to the News & Observer, for example, the GOP told them they were “very unhappy” with what happened. In fact, according to the same article, the wife of one of the members who resigned even indicated that his resignation was “not voluntary” on her Facebook page.
Even after the Board of Elections released a transcript of the Board’s meeting, critics continued their outrage. Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who’s running for governor, even wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr seeking criminal, election-interference and other investigations into the matter.
As NC Voters Continue Voting by Mail, the Mess Continues
With or without the political mudslinging, NC voters still don’t have certainty when it comes to mail-in voting. Just a week ago, a Wake County Superior Court judge approved the settlement. As a result, the Board put the agreed-to changes into place.
At the time, while perhaps not ideal, the court decision at least gave NC voters some certainty. They knew the exact deadline for their ballots, and they knew what might happen if they did something wrong.
That certainty didn’t last long, however. Last week, a federal-court judge sharply criticized the changes agreed to by the Board of Elections. The judge described the Board of Elections’ moves as an attempt to eliminate the witness requirement, according to AP reporting.
Despite the sharp criticism, the federal court reserved a ruling on the matter until later this week, pushing the continuing uncertainty even closer to the Nov. 3 election date. With voters already mailing in their ballots and early voting just days away, the evolving uncertainty is undoubtedly causing headaches for voters across the state.
If You’re Having One of Those Headaches, You’re Not the Only One
With everything going on — the pandemic, a tense political climate and more — folks feel overwhelmed. But North Carolinians can take solace in the fact that they’re not the only ones dealing with these issues. In fact, we might even have it better than most.
In Georgia, early voters met hours of lines earlier this week. For example, in Gwinnett County, GA, a county just outside of Atlanta, the county website estimated the shortest wait time as more than an hour and the longest as nearly five hours.
Similarly, in South Carolina, voter confusion is making headlines as well. Multiple SC courts ruled that the state’s witness requirement for mail-in ballots was too risky with COVID-19. Those decisions led local election officials to rely on the changes in various public statements.
But, just this past week, the United States Supreme Court intervened, reversing those state-court decisions. This meant that anyone who relied on the state’s updated public procedures may not have their votes counted. Unsurprisingly, SCOTUS’s last-minute intervention leaves SC voters in a bit of a whirlwind this close to the election.
With what’s happening here in NC, in South Carolina, in Georgia, and elsewhere, one thing is consistent everywhere: confusion. And, with mail-in voting well underway, with early voting starting or just about to start, and with Election Day just three weeks away, it’s hard to think of a worse time for confusion to be so prevalent.