Governor Cooper announced this week that North Carolina would move into Phase 3 of the COVID-19 response at 5:00 PM Friday, October 2, following stable COVID-19 numbers during September. In Phase 3, outdoor venues will be allowed to operate at significantly limited capacity (7% for venues with >10,000 seats and whichever is less between 30% or 100 people for smaller venues) and bars and amusement parks will both be able to operate outdoors at 30% capacity. Mass gatherings will still be limited to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
Following the previous week’s proposed settlement that set new rules for processing absentee ballots, including easing the requirements for voters to “cure” their ballots and extending the absentee ballot receipt deadline, the Trump campaign sent a letter to Republicans on North Carolina county election boards advising them to ignore the new rules. In response, the State Board of Elections sent a notice reminding county election officials that they must follow state directives.
On Wednesday, the U.S. District Judge who had delivered the preliminary injunction that the State Board of Elections said prompted their absentee ballot rule changes, Judge William Osteen, issued an order clarifying that he did not approve of the change to ballot-curing rules that would potentially allow absentee voters to get around the witness requirement. The next day, State Board of Elections director Karen Brinson Bell issued a memo instructing elections officials to “take no action” on ballots returned without a witness signature, and to keep these ballots in a secure location until a procedure for curing them is finalized.
On Friday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins ruled in a related but separate state case, approving the State Board of Elections’ changes to the absentee ballot process and the immediate implementation of these changes. Less than 24 hours later, however, U.S. District Judge James Dever issued a temporary restraining order blocking the changes following a hearing for two federal cases filed the previous week. This means that absentee ballots without witness signatures will continue to be held, and the status of these ballots and the new rules remains in limbo. Judge Dever folded the two cases into the pre-existing federal case before Judge Osteen, who will hold a hearing on that case this coming Wednesday.
Economic and Housing Policy
The NC Division of Employment Security’s inability to reprogram the state’s unemployment system in a timely fashion means that the $50 dollar boost to unemployment benefits approved a month ago and scheduled to run through the end of 2020 will not be paid until late October, although the payments will be retroactive to September 6th. Implementing the program has proven difficult for the state due to conflicting federal and state eligibility requirements, and because of these conflicting requirements, only around 20% of unemployment recipients will ultimately qualify for the $50 increase.