Judge says absentee ballots in North Carolina must have witness signatures

Voters read to pass the time while waiting on a long line to cast their as early voting begins at Mason District Governmental Center in Annandale, Virginia, U.S., October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that absentee ballots in the presidential battleground state of North Carolina must have a witness signature, a boost for Republican groups seeking to enforce stricter rules on mail-in voting.

U.S. District Judge William Osteen in Greensboro issued an injunction essentially barring voters from being able to “fix” an absentee ballot they had already sent in if it lacked a third-party signature attesting that the voter, and not somebody else, signed the ballot.

The judge was reversing a previous directive by state officials that had allowed voters to remedy the lack of a witness signature by returning an affidavit verifying that it was their ballot.

Republican state Senator Phil Berger said in a statement: “Judge Osteen was right to stop the...elimination of the absentee ballot witness requirement.”

In his written ruling, the judge allowed voters to fix smaller problems with their ballots, for example if a witness signature was in the wrong place.

The Nov. 3 election promises to be the nation’s largest test of voting by mail due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Democrats and Republicans are locked in numerous lawsuits that will shape how millions of Americans vote this autumn.

North Carolina, which Republican President Donald Trump won by just 3.6 percentage points in 2016, is one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in Trump’s contest with Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Trump has repeatedly and without evidence said that an increase in mail-in ballots would lead to a surge in fraud, although Americans have long voted by mail.

The Trump campaign and other Republican groups have been seeking to get courts to place restrictions on mail-in voting, while Biden’s team and Democrats have been fighting to remove obstacles to voting by mail.

Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Peter Cooney