An election worker stuffs absentee ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Boards of Elections office in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4. Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images

The North Carolina State Board of Elections on Monday issued new guidance to county boards on how voters can fix problems with their absentee by mail ballots.  

The latest memo aims to not only set a standard, but with two weeks until Election Day, clear up a near-constant cloud of confusion that has been hanging over parts of the state’s absentee ballot process for the past month. However, there are still other pending lawsuits and opportunities to appeal the court orders cited in the memo. 

In a previous memo, dated Oct. 4, the NCSBE directed county election boards to take no action on absentee by mail ballots with deficiencies on the return envelope, to avoid confusion while several lawsuits around which ballot envelope issues can be cured played out in various courts.  

An attorney representing the NCSBE in court Friday dubbed the situation as “paralysis,” estimating that at least 10,000 absentee ballots with various deficiencies are on hold due to deficiencies and the county boards have been unable to even notify voters about their ballots status due to lawsuits. 

The new guidance, revised on Oct. 17 and issued to county boards today, lists various deficiencies that fallen under two main categories: those that can be cured with a certification and those that cannot be cured. Those that cannot be cured must be spoiled, with a new ballot issued before Election Day. There are also some deficiencies, like a missing zip code, that do not require any action to be accepted. 

There are three listed deficiencies in the new memo that require a new ballot be issued because they cannot be cured by certificate: 

  • A missing witness or assistant signature
  • The envelope is unsealed
  • The envelope indicates the voter is requesting a replacement ballot

The missing witness signature had been the center issue in courtroom drama involving several legal challenges. A federal judge ruled last week that allowing voters to cure a missing witness signature would amount to circumventing the witness requirement, which is state law. 

Deficiencies that are deemed curable by certification in the memo include a voter signature that is missing or in the wrong location, a witness or assistant signature on the wrong line, a witness or assistant that did not also print their name or print their address. 

The memo instructs that county boards must notify voters in writing within one business day of identifying the deficiency and include a cure certification or a new ballot, depending on the issue being resolved. The written notice must also include information on how to vote in-person during early voting and on Election Day, as a voter can choose this option instead of fixing or filling out a new ballot. 

Some background: Voting rights advocates and election officials have grown anxious as the clock ticks down to Election Day, concerned the legal battles could leave affected voters without enough time to fix their issues through the mail. A voter with a pending absentee by mail ballot can cancel it by voting in person — something groups are now encouraging them to do as lawsuits play out —but there is likely a small number of voters who won’t or can’t utilize that option due to the pandemic.

The memo does note that if the voter has an email address on file, the board “shall also send the cure certification to the voter by email.” If no email address is available, the board is instructed to call the voter and let them know a cure certification has been mailed. 

Cure certifications may be submitted by fax, email, in person or by mail. It must be received by a county board of elections by the ballot deadline, a date that is currently tied up in court. 

For ballots with issues that cannot be cured, county boards must also notify those voters by phone or email, if available, that their ballot has an issue that cannot be cured and a new ballot has been issued.  That voter must fill out and mail in a new ballot by Nov. 3 or they can choose to vote in person instead. 

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