1000 x 90

Watauga Voting Rights Task Force: State Board Staff Engaged in Rewriting NC Law To Suppress Opportunities

April 8, 2014. An April 1 administrative decision by North Carolina State Board of Elections staff to reject absentee ballot requests that are signed electronically violates the letter of the law, according to the Voting Rights Taskforce, a grassroots Watauga County group that formed to counteract voter suppression efforts by both the local and the state Boards of Elections.

(The State Board of Elections staff ruled that absentee ballot requests with electronic signatures made by Watauga County voters prior to their April 1 ruling will be accepted.)

“First, the local and State Board of Elections does everything it can to discourage the voting of Appalachian State University students, staff and faculty, and then they move precincts to remote locations and grant only one Early Voting site to over 60% of the voting population in the county,” said Pam Williamson, a Voting Rights Task Force spokesperson. “The state legislature made it easier to request an absentee ballot, and members of the State Board of Elections encouraged us to use it. We did. But once the Watauga County Task Force for Voter Rights decided to actually use the state’s new absentee ballot request laws to encourage voter participation, the staff at the State Board of Elections quickly put a stop to it.”

The Watauga County Voter Task Force is an arm of the Watauga County Democratic Party.

New absentee ballot request laws require voters to use a State Board of Elections (SBOE) form. The State Board of Elections put up the new form on its website and encouraged voters to duplicate and distribute the forms. “We reviewed the new absentee voter laws carefully to ensure we followed all of the necessary steps required for encouraging voters to use the form. We ensured that all the voter’s information was applied directly to the new State Absentee Request form posted at the State Board of Elections’ site.  The law merely requires that the request be signed. It does not dictate how the request be signed. So we made it easy to sign the form by including a program which allowed an electronic signature,” said Williamson.

Just to be sure the voter’s electronic signature was valid, the Voting Rights Task Force required that the voter requesting the ballot confirmed his or her signature before submitting the ballot request. This confirmation resulted in a “Signature Certificate” attached to each voter’s absentee ballot request. The certificate verifies and traces the steps of the voter’s electronic signature.

“Watauga voters clearly like this new option,” said Williamson. “It’s fast, it’s accurate, and it’s safe. As a result, 95% of absentee ballots received in the Watauga BOE thus far have been submitted with electronic signatures.”

“State law on absentee ballot requests does not prohibit electronic signatures,” said Williamson, “Other North Carolina statutes not only recognize the validity of electronic signatures, they actually encourage the use of electronic signatures. But because we in Watauga County offered an on-line platform, with the SBOE’s own forms, with a way to sign electronically using your computer mouse, and because voters were actually requesting ballots by this method, the SBOE essentially freaked out and tried to work a way around the law to stop this ballot access,” said Williamson.

State Board of Elections staff decided that even though there is no law in State Statute discounting absentee ballot requests submitted with an electronic signature, because the state doesn’t allow voters to register to vote with an electronic signature, then state legislators’ ‘intent’ surely was not to accept electronic signatures on absentee ballot requests either since absentee ballot requests can also be used to update voter information. State legislators, they argued, simply forgot to include such prohibition in the law on absentee ballot requests.

“This decision,” says Williamson, “required State Board of Elections staff to come up with some pretty novel interpretations of state law and ridiculous (and rather embarrassing) contortions of plain English. Only one of the absentee ballot requests submitted in Watauga also served to update voter information. The State Board of Elections staff simply doesn’t want progressives voting in Watauga County, and they’re obviously fully prepared to reinvent the law towards that end.”

“It’s clear that the real “intent” of the State Board of Elections staff is to discourage as many people as possible from voting at all,” said Williamson. “They weren’t counting on people actually finding a way around their voter suppression attempts. And the Voting Rights Task Force will continue in its efforts to challenge legislative and Board of Elections attempts to discriminate against certain voting populations.”

“We’re just getting started,” Williamson said.

*Release from Watauga County Voting Rights Task Force, which is an arm of the Watauga County Democratic Party. Williamson added that the task force is a bi-partisan group of local activists who advocate for voting rights for all Watauga County voters, regardless of party affiliation. “We did not see a benefit to joining with the local Republican Party on this effort since their goal is to suppress voting, not encourage it,” Williamson said.