Will NC’s Witness Signature Lawsuit Change the Election? Here’s What You Need to Know.

FAYETTEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 29: A woman walks pass campaign signs displayed outside an early voting location at Kiwanis Recreation Center on October 29, 2020 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

By Max Millington

October 30, 2020

Cardinal & Pine talks to Damon Circosta, chair of the State Board of Elections, about the witness signature lawsuit, and why 98% of ballots will be unaffected. 

In an already high stakes election in North Carolina, one wrinkle in the process of absentee voting is creating another hurdle, especially for voters that live alone. 

When voting absentee, North Carolinians are required to have a witness sign their ballot. According to a report by The Associated Press, “lack of a witness signature or other witness information has emerged as the leading cause of ballots being set aside before being counted in North Carolina, with problems disproportionately affecting Black voters in the state.” 

Cardinal & Pine spoke to State Board of Elections Chair Damon Circosta about what the witness signature rules mean for voters:

C&P: Tell me about the witness signature law and why it exists. 

Circosta: North Carolina law requires that every absentee ballot has a witness signature to it. It used to be two witness signatures and it was moved to one in May. Every ballot that comes absentee needs to have (a signature). 

There has been a tussle in the both federal and state courts about what we should do if we receive a ballot without a witness signature. Ultimately, the decision by the courts was to spoil any ballot that doesn’t have a signature, but if there’s any other defect on the absentee ballot container envelope, that can be cured by the voter by filling out an affidavit. 

RELATED: Election HQ: Cardinal & Pine’s Live Blog on NC’s 2020 Election

“Ultimately, what we need to remember here is the big picture. Election fraud or ballot fraud is exceedingly rare, it happens with a very small number of voters and a very small amount of elections throughout the history of our country. “

Damon Circosta
State Board of Elections Chair Damon Circosta

C&P: So the witness signature isn’t a State Board of Elections rule?

Circosta: That’s exactly right. This is state legislation. We were sued by many different folks, both from the left and the right, regarding what we needed to do to conduct the election during the pandemic. Bottom line for voters is if you choose to vote absentee, you need to sign your ballot, and you need to have a witness do the same. 

We at the Board of Elections need to do everything we can to make sure that if we come across any defect, we don’t disenfranchise that voter.

C&P: We know that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy issued an order this summer forbidding Postal Service employees from providing witness signatures on voters’ absentee ballots. Is that being enforced by the State Board of Elections?

Circosta: We try and encourage everybody to have somebody that they know witness their ballot, although it’s not a rule or a law, it makes it easier if there are any issues. 

Ultimately, what we need to remember here is the big picture. Election fraud or ballot fraud is exceedingly rare, it happens with a very small number of voters and a very small amount of elections throughout the history of our country. 

What’s more important is making sure that whatever regulations are in place, be they state Board of Election regulations, or state law or federal law, that voters do everything they can to make sure they comply, so that we can count your vote, because that’s really what we’re trying to do is make sure that every lawful ballot is counted.

C&P: Will a ballot be rejected if a postal worker does sign as a witness? 

Circosta: We would have no mechanism to know whether or not it was a postal worker, or a friend or your next door neighbor, our job is just to make sure that you comply with the witness requirement. That’s what that is there for, nothing more, nothing less.

C&P: Do you have a sense of how many ballots are coming in without witness signatures? 

Circosta: It’s difficult to ascertain the exact number. What we’ve seen historically, and so far in this election is, upwards of 97 to 98% of ballots that come to us have no problems whatsoever. 98% is certainly an A+ for us at the Board of Elections, but we’re going for 100%. So whenever we do come across any sort of deficiency or irregularity, we want to find a way to make sure that that voter can cast their ballot.

C&P: How do you think the fact that voters know there’s a ban on postal workers signing their ballot affects the election in North Carolina?

Circosta: I’m hopeful that by the time it gets to a postal worker, it’s already got a witness signature on it. You might remember that when this legislation was considered in May, the Board of Elections recommended either one or no signature. We feel like we will do everything we can to comply with the law, and make sure that everybody can vote and those shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.


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