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Republican Elections Board members resign over absentee ballot rules

RALEIGH — The day after the state announced a settlement with Democratic attorney Marc Elias regarding absentee ballot protections, the two Republican members of the State Board of Elections resigned, suggesting that they were tricked into supporting a plan to let the state elections director negotiate settlements out of court.

Members David Black and Ken Raymond separately resigned from the board Wednesday. Their resignation letters said they got misleading information from the office of state Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, or from board staff about the need to settle disputes over absentee ballot rules rather than take their arguments to court.

Black objected to the new rule saying a challenged absentee ballot could be “cured” by merely letting the voter confirm that they mailed a legitimate ballot. He said he was led to believe a witness would be required to verify the voter’s confirmation. The witness requirement was scrapped, to Black’s dismay.

Raymond said Stein misled the board about the settlement agreement. In it, the attorney general “did not advise us of the fact that a lot of the concessions made in the settlement have already been denied in a prior case by a federal judge and another case by a state court three-judge panel.”

In a statement from the board, spokesman Patrick Gannon said, “The agency’s legal staff, who are civil servants, provide thorough legal memos to the board prior to every board meeting and answer any questions board members have about matters that come before the board.”

In March, Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell sent a list of legislative requests to the General Assembly, which included reducing or removing the witness requirement to absentee ballots. The General Assembly agreed to some of the requests, wrapping them up in House Bill 1169, but ultimately failed to remove the witness requirement.

Under H.B. 1169, only one witness — instead of two — needs to attest to a voter’s identity. Additionally, the law gives more time for county election boards to approve absentee ballot applications. It requires a barcode on those applications to track the ballot. 

In August, the N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans sued over the changes to the absentee ballot procedures. The lawsuit called for changes to election law much like those Bell sought earlier this year. 

In a closed-door meeting last week, the state elections board voted to allow Bell and her staff to negotiate settlements in election lawsuits. The vote was unanimous, with the board’s two Republican members joining the three-Democrat majority. At least eight other election lawsuits are pending.

Republican leaders expressed outrage.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, who are intervenor-defendants in the lawsuit, said they weren’t consulted in the settlement negotiations.  The settlement is an assault on election integrity, Berger said in a news release.

Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, the House elections committee chair, accused the State Board of Elections of colluding with Elias to “wildly change election law in North Carolina.”

“Just like they did with Voter ID, Roy Cooper and Josh Stein are undermining the will of the people and the integrity of elections by using so-called settlements with left-wing legal activists,” Hall said. 

A judge still needs to sign off on the agreement. Judge Bryan Collins, who referred to the Republican-led General Assembly as “usurpers” in a lawsuit challenging voter-approved constitutional amendments, is tasked with reviewing the motion. The court has set an Oct. 2 hearing date, WRAL reported.

The two vacancies leave the elections board with three members, all Democrats. North Carolina voters have requested several hundred thousand absentee ballots, and more than 100,000 have been returned to county elections offices.