As election officials anticipate a surge in absentee ballots ahead of November contests, voters in several states will be required to have a witness signature on their mailed-in ballot envelopes before election officials can begin processing them.
The requirement has forced election officials to set aside hundreds of ballots in North Carolina, the first state to send out mail-in ballots as early voting is underway.
More than 200,000 ballots have been returned and processed within the last few weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis of election data.
At least 1,700 ballots were not counted because they did not have of a witness name, signature or address, and had disproportionately affected black voters, the agency discovered.
North Carolina is among a dozen states with similar requirements, which voting rights advocates have feared could become a significant hurdle – producing confusion, delays and mass disenfranchisement – in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
An appeals court decision in South Carolina this week also ruled that voters must have a witness sign the envelopes that carry their mail-in ballots.
The state’s General Assembly had recently approved all voters were eligible to cast absentee ballots in 2020 elections, but a federal lawsuit filed challenged a rule that mandated witness signatures.
A federal judge agreed, but Republicans and the state’s election officials successfully appealed the ruling, citing election security and fraud concerns.
In July, the American Civil Liberties Union sued in North Carolina over that state’s requirement, arguing that it presents a danger during the pandemic and imposes a burden on voters’ right to cast a ballot.
“Removing the witness requirements in the middle of a deadly pandemic just makes sense,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, in a statement. “It is an obvious and common-sense solution that protects people’s health and their right to vote.”
A separate North Carolina lawsuit filed by the state’s Democratic party officials this month argued that “this hurdle could leave North Carolinians who cast an absentee ballot but missed one line without a voice in this critical election.”
The lawsuit argued that the ballot restrictions are "incomplete and constitutionally deficient" for failing to treat all voters equally.
According to state election data collected by the Associated Press, 43 per cent of North Carolina’s mail-ballots with incomplete witness information were cast by black voters, despite casting only 16 per cent of mail-in ballots overall.
And in Wisconsin, a federal judge this week upheld witness signature requirements in a state where nearly 80 per cent of ballots cast in August’s primary elections were in the mail.
Though US District Judge William Conley ruled that ballots will be accepted up to six days after Election Day on 3 November, as long as they are postmarked by that date, the judge ruled that the court is “exceedingly reluctant to apply more generalized constitutional tests to the election laws challenged here, at least without a specific legal and factual basis to do so."
Voting rights groups have argued that inconsistent voting rules across states have unnecessarily complicated voting efforts.
The complications follow unfounded claims from Donald Trump and his GOP allies that cast vote-by-mail efforts as ripe for fraud, as his threats to undermine the mail-in vote count have prompted voting advocates to boost their awareness campaigns.