RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A Wake County judge accepted a settlement agreement Friday impacting the rules related to mail-in ballots in the fall election, but Republicans are taking the case to federal court to try to block the changes.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections announced the settlement last week in an effort to settle a lawsuit, which leaders of the agency said would provide clarity to voters.
Republican legislative leaders quickly criticized it, saying they were left out of any discussions about a settlement even though they were named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The two Republican members of the state board resigned after party leaders criticized the agreement.
Republican legislative leaders also accused the board and North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) of colluding with Democratic lawyers in developing the agreement. Chief Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters called that claim “offensive” during Friday’s hearing and said it wasn’t based on any evidence.
Judge Bryan Collins said Friday the settlement was “not a product of collusion” and described it as “fair.”
The rules would extend the deadline for a mail-in ballot to arrive at a county elections office, moving it from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12. The ballot must still be postmarked by 5 p.m. on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.
The settlement also allows for drop boxes to be set up at county election offices and at early voting sites. Additionally, it allows a voter to submit an affidavit to correct issues in the portion of the return envelope where a witness signs instead of having to fill out an entirely new ballot.
Federal Judge William Osteen filed an order Wednesday critical of that signature provision, and the N.C. State Board of Elections issued a memo Thursday to county election officials in response.
The memo reads, “Absentee envelopes with a missing witness signature shall be kept in a secure location and shall not be considered by the county board until further notice. Once the State Board receives further direction from a court, we will issue guidance to county boards on what actions they should take regarding container-return envelopes with a missing witness signature.”
During Friday’s hearing, attorneys in favor of the settlement argued it was necessary in light of the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and recent issues with mail delivery. The case Friday was brought by the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans.
A hearing was scheduled for Friday evening in a separate, but related, case in federal court in Raleigh.
“To actually change statutes that have been passed by both Republicans and Democrats, I think the public ought to be outraged by that attempt and by this judge’s willingness to go along with that,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said Friday.
He said legislative leaders would pursue an appeal in state court while also pursuing their case in federal court.
President Trump’s campaign as well as several national Republican groups are also seeking to block the agreement.
TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, did not address the specifics of the changes in the settlement when he spoke with CBS17 Thursday.
“It’s our job to ensure people know what the rules are, and it’s our job to ensure that we are getting that message. So, we are obviously keeping an eye on it and ensuring that we know the latest developments. But, we will be ensuring voters are also aware,” he said.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein issued a statement Friday afternoon:
“This afternoon, a North Carolina Superior Court judge approved the consent judgment the State Board of Elections negotiated with the plaintiffs. The Court declared that the agreement was a good faith compromise, rejecting any claims of collusion. The purpose of the agreement is to keep voters safe and healthy, ensure that every proper vote counts, bring certainty to the election, and honor North Carolina law. We hope that all parties will respect the result and allow voters to have the certainty and finality they deserve.”