GREENSBORO — Voting rights activists have won a partial victory with a federal court ruling that North Carolina officials cannot reject mail-in ballots without giving voters a chance to defend themselves.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen Jr. issued a preliminary injunction late Tuesday requiring state officials to ensure those who vote by mail receive “due process” if their ballots are called into question.
The ruling will help thousands of North Carolina residents who are wary of voting in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Allison Riggs, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice that represented the voting rights proponents.
“Judge Osteen clearly heard our argument that some people will have no choice but to vote absentee this election,” Riggs said in a written statement. “This ruling is important because it means that an estimated 115,000 votes that would have been rejected for potentially curable reasons will now be counted.”
Riggs and her group represented two civic groups in the lawsuit, Democracy North Carolina and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, as well as eight individual voters.
In their lawsuit filed two months ago, the plaintiffs were seeking a preliminary injunction putting measures in place they said were necessary to protect both voting rights and voters’ health in the midst of the pandemic.
In his ruling, Osteen agreed with their argument that election officials should do more to give mail-in voters a say when their ballots are called into question for some reason.
The lawsuit contended that in the March primary, nearly 15% of mail-in ballots were rejected, many for such arguable reasons as incomplete witness information and signature issues.
“The court finds an injunction should issue prohibiting the sate BoE (Board of Elections) from disallowing or rejecting absentee ballots without due process as to those ballots with a material error that is subject to remediation, such as a signature mismatch or deficient witness contact information,” Osteen said in his 188-page decision.
Osteen also agreed with the nonpartisan plaintiffs that group-living facilities such as nursing homes should be required to give their disabled residents the help they need to vote.
But the judge did not go along with the groups on all their claims.
Osteen said in his ruling they had not presented compelling enough arguments to overturn the state’s requirement that voters must register at least 25 days before the election.
And he declined their request for an alternative system that would allow “absentee ballots to be submitted in a manner other than by mail, such as contactless drop boxes.”
“To order these actions on the eve of this election would supplant the legislative process with the court’s own policy making; these decisions should be left to the legislature,” Osteen said.
But the judge said the two civic groups and the individual voters had raised important issues that state officials need to consider carefully.
“Plaintiffs have raised genuine issues with respect to the November general election,” Osteen said. “Should legislative and executive defendants believe these issues may now be discounted or disregarded for purposes of the impending election, they would be sorely mistaken.”
Contact Taft Wireback at
336-373-7100 and follow
@TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.
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