- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2020

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota election officials are working to comply with a federal judge’s order forcing the state to notify and provide a remedy for voters whose mail-in ballots are rejected due to signature discrepancies.

U.S. District Judge Peter Welte’s ruling late Wednesday comes before North Dakota’s June 9 primary that will be conducted entirely by mail after all 53 counties chose to avoid in-person voting due to the coronavirus.

Advocacy groups including the League of Women Voters of North Dakota sued the state last month over a state law that requires the signatures on absentee ballots and ballot applications to match. The state didn’t notify voters if their ballot was rejected for a mismatched signature.

The judge’s order said 334 North Dakota ballots were rejected in 2018 for a signature mismatch, including one from Maria Fallon Romo, a plaintiff in the case who suffers from multiple sclerosis that “diminishes her ability to write neatly or consistently.”

“Considering election officials incorrectly rejected Romo’s ballot in the 2018 general election for a signature discrepancy - coupled with the fact that she will again have to vote by mail in the upcoming primary because of the COVID-19 pandemic - there is a realistic threat of an impending deprivation of her right to vote,” Welte wrote.

The judge gave the Secretary of State’s office and the plaintiffs until noon Friday to come up with a plan so that county auditors notify voters of a signature discrepancy, “as well as an opportunity for affected voters to verify their ballots.”

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said in a statement that he wasn’t aware of the judge’s order until late Wednesday afternoon.

“It is now under review with legal counsel as to how to comply with the judge’s order,” he said.

“This was the commonsense decision to protect voters’ constitutional rights,” Jan Lynch, president of the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, said in a statement. “Reliable mail voting is essential during the ongoing pandemic, especially for individuals at higher risk of severe illness. With the assurance of a notification and remedy method, North Dakota voters can now cast their ballots with confidence.”

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