Federal court ruling will aid mail-in voting in NC; voters will have a chance to “cure” rejected ballots

One of the major concerns raised by voting rights advocates in the run-up to the 2020 election in North Carolina has involved the issue of ballots that are rejected because of an error in the way a voter marks it. Now, thanks to a ruling issued late yesterday by federal District Court Judge William Osteen, North Carolinians who find themselves in that position will have a chance to cure their error.  Osteen, however, rejected plaintiffs’ effort to do away with the state’s witness requirement for absentee voting and declined to order the provision of “no contact” drop boxes for ballots or to strike down the state’s early deadline for voter registration.

The win on curing rejected ballots, however, could have a big impact. The following is from a press release issued late yesterday by the League of Women Voters, which had brought suit challenging North Carolina’s lack of a process whereby voters could be notified of such a rejection and be given a chance to cure any error.

Over 100,000 Voters Will Be Protected in November with New Process 

GREENSBORO—Late today, a federal judge ruled in the League of Women Voters of North Carolina’s case that the North Carolina State Board of Elections must provide a notice and cure process for absentee ballots marked for rejection. As the number of voters choosing to cast ballots by mail is expected to surge due to the threat of COVID-19, the decision provides relief for tens of thousands of voters whose ballots would otherwise be rejected without recourse.

“The establishment of a notice and cure process for absentee ballots is a major victory for North Carolina voters,” said Jo Nicholas, president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. “Now, even amidst all the uncertainty that the pandemic brings, voters can have assurance that their safely cast ballots will be counted in November.”

Over 282,000 absentee ballots were rejected in North Carolina’s March primary election, 41% of which could have been cured if voters had been notified and given a chance to do so, according to data reviewed by Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The absence of a cure process in that election left 115,000 voters without a way to fix mistakes and ensure their ballots would be counted.

“Too many voters—particularly voters of color—are disenfranchised by unfair ballot rejection processes that provide them no opportunity to cure what are often minor errors,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters of the United States. “In such an important election year, it is incumbent upon states to ensure voter confidence by establishing uniform and fair processes that empower voters to fix errors and provide assurance that their ballots will count.”

The League was proud to be represented in the case by Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Fair Elections Center, and WilmerHale. Several individual North Carolina voters also joined the case, Donna Permar, John P. Clark, Margaret Cates, Lelia Bentley, Regina Whitney Edwards, Robert K. Priddy Jr., Susan Schaffer, and Walter Hutchins—all voters whose rights are threatened by the state’s burdensome election laws.

“This ruling is important because it means that more than 100,000 votes that would have been rejected for potentially curable reasons will now be counted,” said Allison Riggs, chief counsel for voting rights and interim executive director for Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Voters who would normally be disenfranchised – especially voters of color, who are disproportionately likely to have their absentee ballots rejected – are now able to have their votes counted and their voices heard. This is a victory because it now prohibits the rejection of absentee ballots without due process.”

Since the time the League’s case was filed in May, the State Board of Elections has taken several actions to improve election issues recommended by the League and its legal partners, including modifying the two-witness requirement down to a one-witness requirement. However, several of North Carolina’s other onerous ballot requirements remain in place.

“The court’s mandate of a cure process for absentee ballots is very positive news for North Carolina voters,” said Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. “State election officials estimate that as many as 40% of North Carolinians could vote by mail this fall—if that holds true, this ruling could make a difference in ballots counting for tens thousands of NC voters who choose to vote absentee. While we’re disappointed that the court did not act on a number of other issues we raised in our complaint, this decision is a critical development toward ensuring safe and inclusive voting access this fall.”

The State Board of Elections is expected to provide training and guidance for county election officials over the coming weeks. The League and its partners will be monitoring these actions to ensure they comply with the full weight of the court’s order, and will inform voters of the developing rules.

Click here to see the court’s ruling.

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