Republicans seek access to absentee ballot containers in new lawsuit

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, workers prepare absentee ballots for mailing at the...
FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, workers prepare absentee ballots for mailing at the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing millions of American voters worried about their health to scramble to vote by mail for the first time. But a requirement in a handful of states, including presidential battleground North Carolina and Wisconsin, that a witness or notary public sign a ballot envelope is tripping up some voters early. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)(Gerry Broome | AP)
Updated: Oct. 6, 2020 at 12:23 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The North Carolina Republican Party filed a new lawsuit on Monday seeking to force the North Carolina State Board of Elections to provide access to absentee ballot envelopes.

The lawsuit was filed in Duplin County Superior Court and names the NCSBE, its three members and Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director.

In the lawsuit, lawyers for the party and the Duplin County Republican Party Chairman Adrain Arnett claim the NCSBE is violating the state’s public records act by not providing access to the absentee ballot covers, which are public record under the law.

DOCUMENT: Click here to read the full lawsuit

Arnett and others across the state requested access to the envelope in which a ballot is sent, known as an absentee ballot container. The outside of the container has information each voter is required to fill out for the ballot to count under the law, including the witness to the ballot.

The lawsuit claims the public has been unable to observe staff and inspect ballots at some county boards of elections in-person as they processed absentee ballots.

Under a memo sent by Bell to county boards of elections in late September, county boards have the option of streaming meetings to review absentee ballots virtually instead of allowing in-person access to the public as a precaution for COVID-19.

That memo also makes clear the ballot containers are public record.

“Ballot return envelopes are public records under North Carolina’s Public Records Act, with exceptions for voter signature and CIV number. Public records requests show not be fulfilled during a board meeting, but must be fulfilled as promptly as possible,” the memo said.

The lawsuit pointed to that memo as an impediment to the public accessing records, as required by law.

“True to the instructions issued by Defendants so far, many voters across the State were denied the right to challenge any ballots, denied the right to observe the county staff processing the ballots and container-return envelopes, and denied the right to inspect ballots and container-return envelopes” the lawsuit said.

Exhibits attached to the lawsuit show a staffer from the Trump campaign wrote the NCBSE regarding access to the absentee ballot containers on September 24.

DOCUMENT: Click here to read lawsuit exhibits

“Given the surge of absentee by mail voting this year, we request that your office issue guidance to the county boards directing them to provide access,” the letter said. “We understand and appreciate the need for the county staff and boards to do their work unimpeded, but not at the cost of the public perception of this election’s integrity.”

According to another exhibit attached to the complaint, the NCSBE’s general counsel, Katelyn Love, responded on September 29 to push back on the notion that the board needed to provide access to the records before the election.

“As noted in the memo, the Public Records Law provides that inspection shall take place ‘as promptly as possible’ but does not provide a specific time frame during which inspection must take place,” Love said.

“Timing of inspection will vary depending on when the request is made and the resources of the county board of elections.”

The lawsuit was filed on Monday afternoon and seeks a temporary injunction.

It is not clear whether any hearing on a possible injunction had been set yet and, if so, when the motion would be heard.

This lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal challenges from Republicans and Democrats on North Carolina’s voting process.

Currently, legal proceedings are pending in both state and federal court that would impact the regulations surrounding how absentee ballots are handled.

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