NC Elections Board debates using race as a criterion in signature verification pilot

Durham is the most populous county that will take part in the ballot signature-matching pilot program for the upcoming primary elections.

The State Board of Elections on Tuesday approved the 10 counties that will participate in the mailed ballot signature-matching pilot as required under a new law.

In addition to Durham, Halifax, Bertie, Wilkes, Montgomery, Rowan, Jones, Pamlico, Henderson, and Cherokee will use signature matching software for the primary.

The signature verification test for mailed ballots was part of the massive package of election changes the Republican-led legislature enacted last year over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

Republicans agreed to a Democratic proposal for a limited pilot project this year, a step back from the full statewide implementation Republican senators initially proposed.

The State Board of Elections in selecting the software.

Signature verification for absentee ballots has been simmering in North Carolina for a few years. In 2022, Republicans tried to override a State Board of Elections directive that disallowed county elections officials from setting aside ballots based on eyeballing signatures.

Voting rights groups at that time objected to signature matching, saying that the state already had the country’s most stringent absentee ballot rules, requiring signatures of two witnesses or a notary. Last year, people voting absentee were also asked to provide a copy of their photo ID with their ballot. Critics have also pointed to the fact that many people’s signatures evolve over time and that some may bear little resemblance in the present to what appeared on their original voter registration documents.

North Carolina would be the only state with both signature verification and required witness or notary signatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

How the 10 pilot counties were chosen

The law requires the State Board to seek “diversity of population size, regional location, and demographic composition,” in selecting the 10 counties.

State Board staff recommended using information on the race of voters in each county to ensure demographic diversity.

Kevin Lewis, a Rocky Mount lawyer and one of the board’s two Republican members, objected to using race as one of the diversity standards. He suggested using voter age or the economic well-being designations the state Commerce Department uses.

“I just want to go on the record as objecting to our agency using race as a classification to divide voters when we can use economics,” he said.

State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell said using median age doesn’t work to ensure a diverse group of counties because it doesn’t vary much.

The Commerce Department division of counties into tiers based on their economic well-being is not a reflection of who votes, Brinson Bell said. The state’s most economically distressed counties tend to be clustered in eastern North Carolina, defeating the goal of regional diversity.

State board member Siobhan Millen, a Raleigh Democrat, said it was appropriate to consider race in a pilot program that should be checking for possible problems.

“If the signature matching software that we’re going to use were to have a different impact on a poor Black county, hypothetically, than it has on Wake County, hypothetically, would not we be opening ourselves up to a Voting Rights Act [complaint] or some kind of a lawsuit? So, shouldn’t we know that in advance? If there is a problem that is racially based, it seems like it would behoove us to have a forewarning of that,” she said.

The counties were grouped by population size, non-white voting population and region, then selected at random. The list was then checked against the Commerce Department economic well-being information and median voter age.

The 10 counties include five Tier 1 counties, which according to the state Commerce data are the most economically distressed, three Tier 2 counties, and two Tier 3 counties.

Among the counties selected, Durham has the youngest voter median age, at 42. Seven counties had median voter ages in the 50s. Pamlico had the oldest median voter age, at 61.

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