President Donald Trump’s campaign and North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to shorten the state’s recently extended deadline for accepting late-arriving absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day.
State Republican legislative leaders argue in their appeal that the longer deadline, which was extended after early voting had begun, will result in unequal treatment of voters and dilute the value of those who cast ballots before the rule was changed. They also say it usurps legislators’ authority to set election rules. The Trump campaign’s appeal also asks the high court to force the state to revert to stricter rules for fixing absentee ballot errors.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections had announced in late September that absentee ballots could be accepted by counties until Nov. 12, as long as they were mailed by Nov. 3, which is Election Day. The rule change, contained in an official memo, lengthened the period for accepting ballots from three to nine days after the election.
The state board is “administering the election in an arbitrary and nonuniform manner that will result in disparate treatment by inhibiting the rights of voters who cast their absentee ballots before the Memorandum was issued,” says the appeal filed by lawyers representing state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans.
The state board made the change as part of a legal settlement in state court with a union-affiliated group that had challenged what it saw as restrictive voting rules during the coronavirus pandemic. The settlement said the longer deadline was needed in case of postal delays. While the board has a Democratic majority, the settlement was also approved by two Republican board members who later resigned amid fallout from their party.
Federal district and appeals courts declined to intervene on the deadline issue.
A federal judge considering the deadline and other absentee ballot procedures, U.S. District Judge William Osteen, ruled last week that absentee ballots that arrive without a witness signature can’t be counted. That prompted the state to issue guidance Monday that such voters must start their ballot over and have it witnessed again. The court battle had caused absentee ballots with a range of errors to be set aside for about two weeks while the procedures were debated.
The appeal filed Thursday by the Trump campaign argues that the Supreme Court should go further than just shortening the ballot deadline. It asks the high court to block a series of directives, also referred to as numbered memos, issued by the state board since Sept. 22 that allow voters to fix a range of absentee voting errors without casting a new ballot from scratch.
“Plaintiffs urge the Court to prohibit the Board from implementing the Numbered Memos and enjoin it from further interfering with this election,” the Trump appeal says.
The Trump campaign has also asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the state court settlement that included the rule changes.
Osteen had ruled that the late September rule revisions would effectively eliminate the witness requirement for absentee ballots, and he required the state to make voters start ballots over if they send them in without a witness signature. But the judge’s ruling allowed voters to fix more minor problems such as an incomplete witness address with a signed affidavit.
The Supreme Court has already weighed in on another battleground state’s ballot deadline, ruling earlier this week that Pennsylvania could count mailed-in ballots received up to three days after the Nov. 3 election, rejecting a Republican appeal. The high court’s Monday ruling upholds a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court decision that ballots may be accepted until Nov. 6, even without a clear postmark, as long as there is no proof they were mailed after the polls closed.
North Carolina is considered another key battleground state where races for the presidency and U.S. Senate are closely contested.