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LUMBERTON — The director of the Robeson County Board of Elections says her office is adjusting after the state board changed the procedures regarding absentee ballots in this fall’s election.

The new rules approved Tuesday by the State Board of Elections mandate that if there is a deficiency in the voter’s absentee ballot request or the ballot itself, the voter can be sent a cure certification instead of having to sign a cure document and fill out a new ballot.

“Instead of having to cancel out one ballot and reissue another one, we could just send the cure affidavit, so that part would make it easier for us,” Tina Bledsoe said.

The ballot deficiencies included in the change are the voter did not sign the voter certification or signed it in the wrong place, or the witness did not print his or her name or address, did not sign or signed at the wrong place.

This does apply to deficient ballots already received by the county Board of Elections office, Bledsoe said. In those cases the county board will contact the voter in writing, and by telephone or email when available, to explain that the procedure has changed and the voter has the option of submitting a cure certification instead of a new ballot.

The state board also declared that an absentee ballot can be turned in at a polling place, once one-stop early voting begins Oct. 15, by either a voter or a close relative. Previously ballots could only be turned in by mail or in person at the county Board of Elections office.

Bledsoe said the coordinator of each polling site will return any turned-in ballots to the county Board of Elections at the end of each day’s voting. From that point the process will be the same as it is for ballots received by mail or at the board’s office.

“We will process them as returned, and we will do our preliminary thought on it, whether its accepted or rejected,” Bledsoe said. “At the next absentee board meeting, we present the ones we’ve acquired from the last absentee meeting date.”

Approved ballots will then be inserted into a tabulating machine, and the number of ballots placed in the machine will be logged. The voting results themselves will not be counted until Election Day, which is Nov. 3. The Board of Elections will meet each Tuesday leading up to Election Day, starting next week, to consider absentee ballots.

County boards of elections also will now accept absentee ballots through Nov. 12, nine days after Election Day, if they are postmarked or turned in by Election Day. Previously, ballots would not be accepted after Nov. 6.

While the changes occurred after the absentee process had already begun, Bledsoe said changes in election statutes are common and that her office is accustomed to dealing with them.

“We’re used to things steadily changing in election because there’s lawsuits out there,” she said. “As lawsuits happen, depending on whether judges side with the plaintiff or not, it does affect the statutes they have previously sent out to us. So they have to come up with clear guidance for us, according to what the statute is saying after the ruling of the lawsuit, and then we’re to apply that to our procedures and daily processes to make that happen.

“So we’re used to things constantly changing in the election world. We wish they wouldn’t, but they do, so that’s just part of it and we have to roll with it. We ain’t got no choice but to comply. We do what (the state) tells us to do.”

The changes came as part of a legal settlement between the state Board of Elections and the North Carolina Alliance of Retired Americans. The alliance had argued in court that previous election rules regarding absentee ballots were too restrictive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republican legislators claim the Democratic-led State Board of Elections “colluded” to weaken the absentee voting statutes that were previously approved by the General Assembly. The GOP lawmakers could sue the state to try and stop the new rules from being enforced.

State Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of House Tim Moore, both Republicans, are defendants in the case out of which the consent order arose, said Pat Ryan, a Berger spokesman. They will be submitting a brief to the court opposing the consent order. The State Board of Elections also is a defendant in the case and reached a “consent” agreement without notifying or even speaking to the other defendants, Ryan said.

Lawyers for Berger and Moore sent a statement to the court minutes after the agreement was announced.

The statement reads in part, “Legislative Defendants were not consulted or made aware of this motion for a Consent Judgment before it was filed. We are in the process of reviewing this 42 page document now and determining our official position, and we would request that the Court not enter any order until we have had an opportunity to review and let the Court know whether we plan to oppose.”

Sen. Ralph Hise, who co-chairs the Senate Elections Committee, said, the legal battle will be the “defining fight” of the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“Every power player involved in this collusive settlement, from Gov. Cooper to Attorney General (Josh) Stein to, potentially, Supreme Court Chief Justice Cherie Beasley will appear on the ballot this year,” the Republican lawmaker said. “They’ve rewritten election laws while the election is actively underway. We’re witnessing a slow-motion mugging of North Carolina’s election integrity.”

Nearly 950,000 mail-in ballots have been requested in North Carolina for the November election, out of over 7 million registered voters, according to state data. Since blank ballots began getting sent out in early September, more than 153,000 have been returned and accepted, as of Tuesday morning; there have been about 1,700 ballots returned with incomplete witness information, the most common reason ballots weren’t accepted.

North Carolina is one of eight states to require absentee ballots to be signed by a witness and/or notary public, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The state had previously reduced the witness requirement to one witness compared to two witnesses in previous elections, due to voters in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic potentially having difficulty finding two witnesses.

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