By Rick Henderson
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Two lawsuits challenging the N.C. State Board of Elections’ plans for handling absentee ballots this fall head before a federal judge Thursday, Oct. 8, in Greensboro. A hearing on both suits is scheduled less than one day after the same judge criticized the state elections board in a separate case.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen will consider the lawsuits five days after another federal judge transferred both cases to Osteen’s court. A temporary restraining order tied to the cases blocks the elections board from proceeding with its plans, at least until Oct. 16.
Cases dubbed Moore v. Circosta and Wise v. North Carolina State Board of Elections both challenge absentee ballot rules the state board adopted in connection with a state court settlement finalized Oct. 2.
That settlement faces criticism from Republican legislative leaders and other GOP officials. They say the Democrat-dominated elections board and lawyers working for Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein crafted the deal behind closed doors with lawyers representing Democratic plaintiffs and left-wing activists. Republican critics say the deal is designed to circumvent bipartisan absentee-ballot safeguards built into state law.
Osteen’s consideration of the Moore and Wise cases follows his criticism of the state board’s response to his own ruling in an earlier federal case. In August, Osteen had thrown out most of the case left-of-center plaintiffs had filed challenging N.C. election laws. In a 188-page order, the judge upheld most of existing state law as constitutional.
The one exception involved absentee ballots returned to elections officials with incorrect or incomplete information. In cases in which corrections could be made, Osteen ruled, elections officials were ordered to give voters a chance to correct their errors. Osteen did not rule that a ballot lacking a witness’s signature could be corrected.
Elections officials characterized one piece of their controversial state-level settlement as responding to Osteen’s order. In allowing voters with absentee ballot errors to have their votes counted, the settlement would permit voters to cast valid ballots without ever providing a witness’ signature as required by law.
Both legislative leaders and Osteen had criticized that planned rule change. In a 12-page order following his review of the plan, Osteen accused the state board of gutting the witness requirement under the “guise” of responding to his Aug. 4 order.
Wednesday’s court hearing had been scheduled for Osteen to question the elections board about the witness requirement. After criticizing the board in the hearing, the judge indicated he would issue a written ruling at a later date.
All of these legal actions are taking place as voters cast general-election ballots. As of Wednesday, Oct. 6, N.C. voters had requested more than 1.2 million absentee ballots. They had cast almost 400,000 ballots. In-person early voting begins Oct. 15.