The North Carolina State Board of Elections has had a chaotic few weeks.
After multiple lawsuits, two resignations, disputed changes to mail-in voting, and then a nominee whose former girlfriend accused him of abuse, the board has been in the thick of controversy—all this as North Carolinians vote by mail in record numbers.
The turmoil began Sept. 22, when the board unanimously approved an agreement designed to improve mail-in voting processes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans had sued the state in August to eliminate the witness requirement for absentee ballots, give voters the ability to correct ballot mistakes and extend the deadline for absentee votes to be counted. Facing pressure from a pending lawsuit, the Board met with lawyers from the North Carolina Department of Justice to address concerns over mail-in ballots.
After a three-hour closed session, both parties agreed to settle the lawsuit as long as the agreement achieved three things:
- Ballots that are postmarked by Election Day have until Nov. 12 to be delivered to county election offices, a six-day extension from the original deadline of Nov. 6.
- The witness and assistant requirements “must remain in effect and in full force,” but voters themselves will have the opportunity to “cure any deficiencies in voter’s attestation or witness portions of container-return envelope,” including missing or misplaced signatures.
- All ballot drop boxes must be monitored and the identity of each person returning a ballot must be verified verbally. This allows voters or their immediate family members to complete the drop-off process without having to touch a written log.
Hours after voting in favor of the resolution, the two Republican members of the board, David Black and Ken Raymond, resigned, claiming they were misled about the terms of the agreement.
“We were led to believe the effective administration of the election itself rested upon a settlement,” Raymond said in his resignation letter. “To preserve the trust of the voters, I acted to keep the one-witness requirement and mitigate the possibility [of] the election being disrupted by a judicial order by compromising on the acceptance date of absentee ballots.”
Raymond also criticized North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s office for failing to provide the Board with guidance, adding that “it is impossible to have true bipartisanship when both sides of the political aisle do not have the important and vital information needed to make the right decisions.”
The News & Observer reported that the two Republicans resigned after a call with a lawyer for the state GOP who told them party leaders were “very unhappy.” On Facebook, Black’s wife added that her husband’s resignation was “not voluntary,” which N.C. Republican Party spokesman Tim Wigginton disputed despite noting that party leaders were unhappy with the pair’s support of the agreement.
Board of Election Chairman Damon Circosta denied in a Sept. 25 emergency meeting that Raymond and Black were misled or did not have enough information.
After the resignations, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper nominated former Republican state Sen. Tommy Tucker and James Carlton "Carr" McLamb Jr., who works for the utility management company Envirolink.
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McLamb’s girlfriend then contacted the governor’s office accusing McLamb of physical and emotional abuse and sexual coercion, WRAL reported.
McLamb issued a statement Wednesday that implied the accusations of abuse were politically motivated, according to WRAL.
"These anonymous allegations were launched against my character just hours after I was appointed to a partisan role that could have national implications," he said in the statement. "As a general rule, I do not respond to anonymous attacks, but let me be very clear, I never assaulted anyone or forced anyone into unwanted actions. I’m fortunate to have dated smart, successful women, and all of my relationships have helped to make me a better person."
Cooper rescinded McLamb’s nomination Wednesday and instead named Stacy Clyde "Four" Eggers IV.
The terms of the legal settlement made by the State Board of Election are concerning for GOP members who believe that the changes to mail-in voting pose a threat to election integrity.
“[The agreement] is inviting folks to do things to game an election,” said North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican representing the 26th District.
Democrats, on the other hand, believe the changes to mail-in voting are integral to ensuring a safe and accessible election.
“These Republican leaders are lying about the consent decree to create mistrust in our elections,” Attorney General Josh Stein said in a statement. “They should care more about helping people stay safe, healthy, and have their vote count than they do about power.”
A Wake County judge approved the settlement made between the Board of Elections and the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans last Friday. However, Republicans on both the state and national levels filed lawsuits in an attempt to block the changes from taking effect.
President Donald Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit to block mail-in ballot changes, claiming the agreement undermines “carefully-considered, balanced structure of election laws” and will invite “fraud, coercion, theft and otherwise illegitimate voting.”
North Carolina General Assembly leaders also filed a similar lawsuit in federal court, contending that it is the legislature’s job, not that of the State Board of Elections, to create and amend election rules.
On Saturday, U.S. District Judge James Dever issued a temporary restraining order on the agreement, raising concerns about changing rules after more than 340,000 ballots have already been cast. Dever’s ruling transfers the two lawsuits to U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen, who has scheduled a hearing for next week.
Osteen’s ruling could have major implications for North Carolina’s voting landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sweeping shift in how North Carolinans are choosing to cast their ballots. As of Oct. 6, the number of total absentee ballots requested in the state was greater than 1.2 million—nearly nine times the same-day total in 2016.
In addition to having 15 electoral college votes up for grabs, North Carolina is shaping up to have several closely contested and consequential local and statewide races—many of which will be decided by only a few percentage points. Changes to mail-in voting rules could make the difference, and political leaders across the state are working to ensure that changes are made as openly and fairly as possible.
“Voters deserve to have full confidence in their election process,” Circosta said. “To ensure that voters have that confidence, they deserve all of the facts when the impartiality of their election administration and security are questioned in the public sphere.”
For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote North Carolina, a collaborative of The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.