A federal judge has blocked for now a new law approved by North Carolina lawmakers recently that tightens a rule on when a ballot cast by someone who is simultaneously registering to vote is removed from election counts.

The preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder tells elections workers they can't nullify ballots by screening citizens who register and immediately vote during a 17-day period before a primary or general election through an altered method unless applicant protections are created.

Over 100,000 people have used such "same-day registration" in North Carolina during each of the last two presidential election years, so slight adjustments in the closely divided state could make a difference in this November's elections for president, governor and other statewide positions. Early in-person voting — and thus same-day registration — for the March 5 primaries begins Feb. 15.

The new law, enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in the fall over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto, in part would remove a registrant's ballot from the count after one mailed notice to the person's address by election officials is returned as undeliverable, instead of two under the previous law.

The new provision has been challenged in at least three lawsuits. Schroeder's 94-page ruling on Sunday involved two of the lawsuits filed in October — one by the state and national Democratic parties and the other by North Carolina voter advocacy groups and an individual.

Schroeder, who was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, wrote that the one-mailer procedure doesn't provide due-process protections for voters to learn that their registrations were rejected and to appeal the decision to officials so the ballots could still count.

The plaintiffs said the new procedure would increase the risk that U.S. Postal Service mishaps and paperwork errors would lead to more registration denials. Schroeder's order cited evidence from a plaintiff called Voto Latino about election worker errors leading to verification cards being returned as undeliverable in 2022.

Giving people only one chance to verify by mail would be a "substantial burden on same-day registrants who cast a ballot," Schroeder said. They "will face a non-trivial risk of being erroneously disenfranchised by failing address verification due to governmental error, rather than factors related to their eligibility to vote, without any notice and opportunity to be heard," the judge's ruling said.

Schroeder, whose ruling can be appealed, said his injunction would remain in force until due process concerns are addressed.

Two state House leaders, Speaker Tim Moore and elections committee chairman Rep. Grey Mills, said Monday in a news release that Schroeder's order "requires relatively minor changes" and that they were working with the State Board of Elections "to ensure that the entire bill is in effect before the primary and general elections this year."

The state board and GOP legislative leaders defending the new verification rule in court have said reducing the number of mailers to confirm the applicant's mailing address attempts to address a problem with same-day registration.

The previous law could lead to situations where the second verification mailer is returned as undeliverable after vote totals are finalized, meaning the ineligible registrant's ballot is still counted. State lawyers also said a ruling in a previous lawsuit discourages efforts by local election boards to challenge such votes before the final count.

Schroeder acknowledged there are legitimate interests in using address verification to promote preserving the integrity of the election process and instilling voter confidence. But he wrote the plaintiffs have shown the "precise interests asserted in this case likely do not outweigh the substantial burden on the rights of same-day registrants who cast a ballot."

In 2020, about 2,150 same-day registration applicants in North Carolina failed the address verification. But Schroeder said the state board and Republican legislators "have presented no evidence that address verification has ever filtered out a single ineligible same-day registrant."

Schroeder refused to issue preliminary injunctions sought by the Democratic National Committee, state Democratic Party and others on a handful of other provisions related to administering same-day registration.

The new law contains several other provisions that also remain in effect, including increasing access by partisan poll observers at voting sites and requiring mail-in absentee ballots be returned by election night in order to count.

Copyright 2024 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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