The North Carolina State Board of Elections attempt at an end around state law for absentee ballots threw the whole process into a legal morass.

The NC State Board of Elections has a 3-to-2 Democratic majority, and based on advice from the office of Attorney General Josh Stein, the board entered into a consent agreement to settle a lawsuit from a Democratic group. The settlement was chosen over having the court decide the issues involving requiring a witness signature on the ballot and when an absentee ballot could arrive at the elections office and still be counted.

The State Board of Elections decided that a witness signature was not necessary and that ballots could arrive on Nov. 12 instead of the statutory limit of Nov. 6. The attorneys stated that these decisions were to comply with an earlier ruling from federal District Court Judge Bill Osteen.

Osteen, however, issued an order that stated the consent agreement was not in keeping with his earlier ruling. Federal District Court Judge James Dever granted a temporary restraining order to prevent the State Board of Elections from following the consent agreement and remanded the entire mess back to Osteen’s court.

Osteen heard oral arguments on Wednesday, Oct. 7 and said that he will issue a written decision early next week.

The result of all of this for the absentee voter is that they don’t know what the rules are that will govern their vote. The state law passed with bipartisan support in the North Carolina General Assembly in June requires that absentee ballots sent in without a witness signature be spoiled and the voter sent a new ballot to fill our properly.

However, the State Board of Elections has ordered all 100 county boards of election to hold those absentee ballots until Osteen rules. The result, if Osteen rules that the State Board of Elections has to obey state law, is that absentee voters who failed to have a witness properly sign their ballot will have less time to receive the new ballot from the county board of elections and return a properly witnessed ballot.

President Pro Tem of the state Senate Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) in a press release said, “The Board of Elections keeps making a bad situation worse. Instead of following the law, the Gov. Cooper-controlled Board has now issued four sets of conflicting rules since voting began. The latest rule change may violate a federal court’s order. This chaos is unacceptable. Gov. Cooper’s Board must return to its original plan of following the law and stop changing the rules of the election while voting is already underway.”