The North Carolina State Board of Elections denied Thursday a Republican Party request that the board authorize county elections officials to scrutinize signatures on absentee voting documents, citing concerns that the proposal would create unequal standards across counties.

“We've got an extraordinarily secure absentee ballot process now, and to do this would introduce a level of uncertainty where some voters might be treated different than other voters depending on how they vote,” Chair Damon Circosta said at Thursday's board meeting.

Challenging the board's prior guidance discouraging signature matching, the proposal would permit county boards of elections to compare signatures on absentee ballot request forms and return envelopes with the signatures included in voter registration records. The board rejected the request in a 3-2 party-line vote, with three Democrats voting against signature verification and two Republicans voting in favor.

North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley, calling the board's decision “misguided,” said party leaders will consider filing an appeal with the Wake County Superior Court.

“We want to make sure that it's easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Whatley said in an interview. “(Signature verification) is a very common sense tool, and I think it's inexplicable that the board has instructed not only that the boards don't have to use it, but they can't use it.”

The Republican Party's proposal cited a 2020 memo from the board's Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell, which provided that county boards of elections should accept the signature on an absentee ballot request form if it “appears to be made by the voter or their near relative or legal guardian.” Bell advised that signatures “should not be compared with the voter's signature on file” because that is not required by state law.

After the GOP submitted its request in May, the board held a written public comment period from June 10 to July 5, receiving more than 8,000 responses.

Supporters of the request urged the board to strengthen election security before the November elections, when a few hundred votes could be the tipping point in several close races. But voting rights advocates warned the proposal could disenfranchise disabled and elderly voters whose signatures might have changed since they registered to vote.

“Adding this additional layer, which is just another burden that someone will have to overcome to actually be able to cast their ballot, is being done under the guise of election integrity,” Caroline Fry, interim advocacy director for Democracy NC, said in an interview Wednesday. “It's essentially double speak for making it harder for some voters to cast a ballot.”

Fry said her 72-year-old mother's signature looks “drastically different” from when she registered to vote at age 18, paralleling the experiences of other older voters who wrote to the board.

North Carolina has more stringent identification requirements than many other states that permit absentee voting. Though state law does not explicitly address signature verification, it requires that all absentee voters fill out their ballots in the presence of two witnesses or a notary.

Absentee ballot request forms must also include a date of birth and the last four digits of the voter's Social Security Number or driver's license number.

While 27 states conduct signature verification for absentee voting documents, none of those states require the signature of a witness or notary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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