(CNN)Almost 1,000 absentee ballots are sitting in a locked bin somewhere in the Guilford County Board of Elections waiting to be processed.
At least two voters in Greensboro, North Carolina, part of Guilford County, had no idea their ballots were sitting in that pile.
Vincent Gager, a 48-year-old Black man, and his 83-year-old father Nathaniel mailed in their ballots on September 4. They wanted to vote by mail to avoid exposure to Covid-19. Over a month later, neither man had any idea their ballot had been listed as “pending cure” — which meant there was something wrong with them that would prevent them being accepted.
The issue was with their witness information, one aspect of North Carolina’s voting rules that’s been thrown into confusion amid efforts to ease voting amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve been doing it the same way for years,” Gager said of his father’s ballot. “I sign his. I’m his son. I’m his witness. And no one ever said his ballot wouldn’t count.”
A mismatched signature or missing envelope can lead to mail-in ballots getting thrown out. But ballot “curing” is the process where voters can correct these mistakes, to make sure their votes are counted. States have different “curing” mechanisms — some automatically notify voters about problems, while other states force voters to proactively follow-up with election officials.
A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the North Carolina State Board of Elections from allowing voters to “cure” or fix a missing witness signature with a signed affidavit but determined that other types of deficient witness information, like a missing or incomplete address, can be cured without casting a new ballot.
North Carolina — where early in-person voting began Thursday, with long lines around the state — has been at the center of partisan fights over voting in recent years. A law requiring voters bring government-issued ID to the polls is tied up in court. For the past few years, racial gerrymandering was in the national spotlight when the congressional maps drawn by the Republican-led legislature were in question. Those maps were thrown out after a state court ruling in 2019.
The tumult continued this year: Democrats filed lawsuits seeking to ease restrictions regarding mail-in voting, citing the pandemic, and Republicans on the State Board of Elections abruptly resigned in protest after a settlement was proposed in one of the suits.
Wednesday’s court ruling, however, means the Gagers’ ballots will still be in limbo, until they are contacted by the county with further instructions.
Guilford County has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the state with 3.4% of ballots categorized as “pending” or “pending cure” which means those votes have not been accepted yet. Forty-four percent of those ballots that are “pending” were returned by Black voters.
Statewide, Black voters make up only 16% of total ballot returns, but they account for almost 40% of the ballots labeled as “pending” or “pending cure.”
Gager thinks what happened to his ballot has something to do with efforts to suppress the Black vote in the state. “They’re just doing it in the open, deliberately,” he said.
But Rev. T. Anthony Spears, president of the North Carolina NAACP and a member of the Guilford County Board of Elections, said the problem lies in the need for more voter education as voters switch to mail-in voting in unprecedented numbers — a move Democrats, especially, have favored, while Republicans continue to encourage voters to go to the polls as usual.
“My belief is the reason that’s happening is because minorities, people of color have not accessed or utilized the absentee ballot process, are not used to it, and have not been cultured to it,” Spears said. “There’s a whole lot of education that needs to be done as it relates to them being able to move through some of the difficulties that the absentee ballot presents.”
According to data posted on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website, Black voters cast only 2,460 of the 26,514 mail-in ballots in the March 3 presidential primary.
“African Americans have disproportionally used the early voting cycle, but not absentee ballots,” Spears added. “Many of them, for the first time, are undergoing that process.”
But it’s not just voters who are dealing with confusion over ballot curing. County election officials around the state were told to put ballots with witness deficiencies to the side as the process was roiled by the legal wrangling over the absentee ballot fix process and deadlines.
An early October memo issued to the counties by the North Carolina State Board of Election asked county boards to hold off on processing ballots that are missing witness information “in order to avoid confusion while related matters are pending in a number of courts.”
On Thursday, the North Carolina board of elections emailed county election directors and boards noting it would take time to finalize guidance based on the ruling, and advised county election officials that if a voter’s ballot status is listed as anything other than “accepted” or “accepted-cured,” “they will be contacted as soon as possible if there is an issue with their ballot that requires action by the voter.”
The state also said that voters with a pending deficiency can vote early in-person, and the pending ballot will be canceled.
“I fault the state board,” Spears said. “People are losing confidence. People are losing trust in the election cycle.”
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.