Judge Orders North Carolina To Strengthen Absentee Witness Rule

Judge Orders North Carolina To Strengthen Absentee Witness Rule

2:23pm Oct 15, 2020
Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A U.S. district judge has issued an order on how to fix ballot defects. For now, those without a witness signature will need to be recast from scratch. Not so for minor problems such as an incomplete witness address. The state and national GOP will ask a federal appeals court to force North Carolina to revert to stricter absentee ballot rules.

WFDD’s David Ford spoke with political scientist Michael Bitzer about what it all means for the thousands of yet to be counted mail-ins, the voters who cast them, and their impact on closely contested statewide and national races. 

Interview Highlights

On the importance of absentee by-mail voting in 2020:

North Carolinians have decided to wholeheartedly revamp the way that they vote and the method by which they vote. To give some context, four years ago, we had about 200,000 absentee by-mail ballots that were accepted and were legitimate votes. And now we're talking 1.3 million North Carolinians who are registered voters have requested an absentee by-mail ballot. This is a significant chunk of not just the voter registration pool, but if we're looking at maybe an electorate of 5 million registered voters casting ballots, now, you look at 1.5 to 1.6 million if all of them get turned back in, that's a significant amount of ballots. And let's say 98 percent of them are accepted, but two percent are not accepted — maybe a percent and a half — that's still a potential couple thousand ballots that if these races are as tight as we expect them to be — presidential, U.S. Senate, governor races, you know — these votes may be a source of controversy come November 3 as to legal challenges. 

On the ballots currently being held in limbo and the racial component:

You know, certainly we know that African American voters in North Carolina are traditionally in-person voters. That is their overwhelming preference in past elections to cast their ballot in person just because of the legacy of discriminatory effects and approaches that this state has witnessed in its history. What we are seeing now is a significant increase in the number of African American voters utilizing absentee by-mail ballot. And in looking at how these voters have cast ballots previously in my research, I'm finding of those folks who are pending cure — meaning potentially fixing their ballot — only three percent of the African American voters used absentee by-mail previously, meaning 97 percent of them have never used this vote method before. When you vote in person, you go in. You get your ballot. You fill it out. You scan it. You walk away. You're done. With this vote method, you have to sign the back of the envelope, plus the witness has to do all of their information on the back of it. So, this is an unfamiliar vote method. This may be the first time that they're utilizing this vote method and sometimes voters just make mistakes. 

On potentially ongoing legal battles and their impact on North Carolina election results: 

You know, it all depends on who ultimately shows up. My biggest concern is if voters don't realize they have opportunities to fix a deficient ballot, they may be denied their vote. And certainly we know that that could potentially affect disproportionately voters of color, perhaps younger voters, perhaps first time voters. And so, I think if we are seeing the kind of record turnout that we are expecting — maybe over 5 million registered voters cast ballots this year out of 7.2 million registered voters — you know, this is just a new day in North Carolina. And I think the big concern for a lot of folks is making sure that all the ballots are legally cast and are counted. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

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