Voters struggling with witness rules in early voting

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FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, a worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election 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, file)

RALEIGH, N.C. – As the pandemic prompts a surge in voting by mail, voters in a handful of states, including the presidential battlegrounds of North Carolina and Wisconsin, are facing a requirement that already is tripping up thousands — the need to have a witness sign their ballot envelope.

A lack of a witness signature or other witness information has emerged as the leading cause of ballots being set aside before being counted in North Carolina, with problems disproportionately affecting Black voters in the state, according to an Associated Press analysis of state election data.

While there is a process for fixing the omissions, voting rights advocates say the numbers are an early warning sign that the extra step is becoming a barrier that could disenfranchise voters — and a potential source of legal battles in a tight race.

“People are confused by this whole witness requirement,” said Barbara Beckert, an advocate for Disability Rights Wisconsin, which was part of a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the witness mandate. “Voting absentee is complicated. To get it right, you have to follow a lot of very specific rules.”

There are early signs that voters are struggling to follow those rules. In North Carolina, over 200,000 ballots have been returned and processed since early voting began almost three weeks ago. At least 1,700 couldn't be counted because of lack of a witness name, signature or address. That number accounted for nearly half of all ballots that couldn't be accepted through Tuesday, according to State Board of Elections data.

As of Tuesday, Black voters cast 43 percent of the ballot classified as having incomplete witness information, according to the state elections data. Yet Black voters have cast roughly 16 percent of overall ballots returned to date.

Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the state elections board, attributed the mistakes to inexperience with the process. North Carolina is one of several states where relatively few voters cast mail-in ballots in past elections.

“Many of these voters are voting by mail for the first time and may not fully understand the requirements of the law,” Gannon said.