WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Oct. 26, a North Carolina judge largely rejected a Republican request to temporarily block North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) guidance extending the state’s absentee ballot receipt deadline and regulating partisan poll observers. This decision comes after the Republican National Committee (RNC), North Carolina Republican Party and the chairwoman of the Clay County Republican Party filed a lawsuit in early September challenging NCSBE’s decision to extend the state’s absentee ballot receipt deadline from Nov. 11, which is Veterans Day, to the next business day, Nov. 14. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claim that the extension of the absentee ballot return deadline violates North Carolina law. Additionally, the plaintiffs challenge the NCSBE’s four-hour, one observer limitation for poll observers, which imposes a four-hour minimum requirement regarding the amount of time that at-large partisan election observers — party-designated observers who are permitted to attend any polling place on Election Day — must spend at a given polling site on Election Day before being replaced by another at-large observer. Furthermore, this rule only allows for one at-large observer to be present in a given polling place at a time. The Republicans contend that this regulation also violates North Carolina law as well as the plaintiffs’ due process rights prescribed by the North Carolina Constitution.
In an order issued today, the judge denied the Republicans’ request to move up the absentee ballot return deadline to Nov. 11 and ordered that the current Nov. 14 deadline shall remain in place. Moreover, the judge denied the Republicans’ request to allow for more than one at-large poll observer to be present at a given polling site on Election Day at a time. Regarding these two requests, the judge concluded that the Republican plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits or that the balance of harms tipped in their favor with respect to their claims.” The judge did, however, grant the Republicans’ request to remove the four-hour minimum time requirement on at-large poll observers, meaning there is no longer a four-hour minimum time requirement for which at-large poll observers must remain at a given polling location. The judge noted that, under North Carolina law, “only voting place-specific observers [as opposed to at-large observers] are subject to a four-hour” minimum requirement.
Overall, this decision is a victory for North Carolina voters to the extent that their absentee ballots will be counted so long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than Monday, Nov. 14. Additionally, this decision represents yet another rejection of Republican efforts to meddle in elections vis a vis partisan election observers, who will now be more closely regulated in order to prevent disruptions at polling places. Earlier this month, a North Carolina judge declined to grant a separate GOP request to adopt signature matching requirements for mail-in ballots in the upcoming November election.