RALEIGH, N.C. — The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina, and Sullivan & Cromwell filed a lawsuit today challenging absentee ballot witness requirements that needlessly put North Carolinians at risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The lawsuit seeks to block provisions in state law that require voters who submit a mail-in absentee ballot to have at least one witness sign their ballot return envelope, even in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic. The case was brought on behalf of several voters, including some who have chronic conditions placing them at risk of severe complications from COVID-19.
The state recently passed a law that temporarily reduces the requirement from two witnesses to one for purposes of “an election held in 2020,” but, the lawsuit notes, “the adoption of this temporary regime does not ameliorate the severe health risks caused by witnessing ballots during COVID-19 and merely reflects an acknowledgement on the state’s part that the witness requirements are at odds with public health. Both the original and the temporary witness requirements necessitate face-to-face and hand-to-hand interaction between voters and others who pose a potentially fatal risk to the voter’s health.”
“No one should be forced to choose between their health and their vote. Removing the witness requirements in the middle of a deadly pandemic just makes sense. It is an obvious and common-sense solution that protects people’s health and their right to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
North Carolina is one of only 12 states that require an individual submitting an absentee ballot to have a witness sign their ballot envelope. It is one of only three states that require two witness signatures on absentee ballots. Some of these states have recently suspended these requirements, or have been required to suspend them, on the grounds that they unduly burden the right to vote.
“As COVID-19 cases continue to rise nationally and here in North Carolina, our government officials should be doing everything they can to make sure voters can safely exercise their fundamental rights, not forcing them to risk exposure to this deadly virus in order to do so,” said Jaclyn Maffetore, staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina.
The lawsuit cites violations of the state Constitution’s fundamental right to vote.
Systemic health and social inequities have meant that Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic. And while people of all ages have contracted and died from COVID-19, it is particularly fatal for older individuals and poses greater risks for people with preexisting heart and respiratory conditions and those with compromised immune systems.
Among the plaintiffs are:
Maudie Chambers, 69, who lives alone in a small town in North Carolina. She had a heart attack 18 months ago and has other health issues. She has been self-isolating since March and plans to vote absentee in the November election, but is not sure who would serve as her witness. She doesn’t want anyone to come inside her home due to concerns over the health impact of contracting COVID-19.
Barbara Hart, 73, who lives alone in Asheville, and has a history of breast and lung cancer; chemotherapy for her breast cancer damaged her heart. Hart is particularly at-risk of severe illness if she contracts COVID-19 and has been self-isolating since March. She recalls voting in every election since she was old enough to vote, and wants to vote in the November general election. To limit her exposure to COVID-19, she intends to vote by absentee ballot. She is concerned, however, that the witness requirements would force her to break her self-isolation practices, potentially putting her health in grave danger.
The ACLU is asking the court to block the state from enforcing the witness requirements while COVID-19 emergency orders are in place and/or community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring, and order it to issue guidance instructing city and county election officials to count otherwise validly cast absentee ballots that are missing witness signatures.
The lawsuit, Chambers v. State of North Carolina, was filed in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh, North Carolina.